Ready for Your Close-Up?

Want your biz to get a mention on Oprah or the Today show? Here's the inside scoop on harnessing the power of TV!

By Eileen Figure Sandlin

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When interior designer Lee Snijders first appeared on HGTV'spopular decorating show Designers' Challenge in 2002, heassumed he'd get a flurry of inquiries from prospects and somepromising leads for new work. What he didn't expect was anavalanche of new business.

"During the first commercial break, my girlfriend and Ichecked my e-mail, and I already had 15 e-mails from peoplerequesting whole home designs," says Snijders, founder ofLeeSnijders Designs. "By the next morning, I had received 225e-mails. I was ecstatic."

Such is the power of TV, that all-pervasive electronic mediumthat entertains us, educates us and lifts our spirits. Moreimportant for entrepreneurs, TV can provide a wealth ofopportunities for promoting products and services to a wideaudience you otherwise might not reach-and without the exorbitantexpenses associated with paid advertising.

"Every time that show airs, it's like a free commercialfor me," Snijders, 36, says. "My Web site lights up, thee-mails come in, and I get a new influx of clients. It has beensurreal for me."

And that modest first appearance has paid off for Snijders inanother significant way: In addition to making two more appearanceson Designers' Challenge, he landed his own HGTV show,Design on a Dime, last year, and his innovative work is nowseen regularly by 88 million viewers. He's also in the enviableposition of pursuing licensing deals and endorsements that one daycould be worth millions.

"Being on TV can make you a millionaire-or it can haveabsolutely no effect on your business at all," says SusanHarrow, a media coach and marketing strategist in Oakland,California, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Bookedon Oprah: Ten Steps to Becoming a Guest on the World's Top TalkShow. "For your career to take off, you must prepare inadvance to make the most of your TV appearances."

And here are four steps to help you do just that.

1. Lay the Groundwork

Just as every business needs a carefully constructed businessand marketing plan to ensure success, every entrepreneur who wantsto break into TV needs a media strategy. It's not enough tohave a great product or service, or a lively personality forpitching it well. You also have to do your homework before you everattempt to sell yourself to a talk show or news program producer(the person who's most likely to book on-air talent).

The first step in the process is to determine your niche.Typically, producers are interested in people who can solve aproblem or help people do something better. They love motivationalstories and those with emotional appeal. They also look for peoplewhose products and services relate to current trends. For example,anything you can do or offer right now that ties into the low-carbdiet craze might be perceived as newsworthy by a TV producer.

Next, watch the show you're dying to appear on so you canbecome familiar with the host's style and the program'scontent and pace. And watch it a lot, either by tuning in every dayor by setting your TiVo or VCR to catch the program for a couple ofweeks. Then, review every segment carefully to pick up on commonthemes and styles.

You'll also want to check out the show's Web site forinsider information. For instance, if you click on the "Be aGuest" link on The Oprah Winfrey Show Web site, you'llfind dozens of show subjects the producers are currently pursuing.It's always easier to fit into a category producers are alreadyworking on than to pitch your own idea, so take advantage of anyhelpful hints they provide on their Web site as a way to zero in ontheir needs.

To position yourself as an expert in your field and attract theattention of producers, be sure to emphasize your own expertise andbackground as well. "We only use experts withcredibility," says Chantal von Alvensleben, editorial producerof Your Money on CNNfn. "We hear from a lot of peoplewho say, 'I opened a business two years ago, so now I'm anexpert.' But if you want to talk about financial planningissues on CNNfn, you need to be an experienced financial planner,advisor or personal finance writer with many years of experience.Degrees aren't as important as experience. And if there'sno story, there's no reason to have you on the show, so a goodpitch is essential."

Finally, in addition to concocting a good pitch, you might alsoconsider advertising your expertise and availability in apublication like the Radio-TV Interview Report, which is a trademagazine published three times per month for an audience of 4,000TV and radio show producers. For a nominal fee, you can place an adwith your biography, credentials and photograph in the magazine,immediately bringing you to the attention of producers on the huntfor experts.

2. Launch Your TV Career

Your initial pitch, or proposal, can make or break your chancesof getting a coveted pre-broadcast audition. The pitch should notonly propose a dynamic topic on a timely subject, but also includeenough information about you and your idea to pique producers'interest, inducing them to reach for the phone and call youimmediately to learn more.

According to Harrow, a well-crafted pitch should summarize youridea or story angle in a few sentences and should suggest two orthree different variations on the same theme in case one of themhas already been done or doesn't quite meet a producer'sneeds. She also recommends phrasing the topic dramatically and witha negative slant, as in "How your children's lunches canharm them" (instead of "Healthy eating for kids").Such a provocative approach is likely to elicit more interest whenit crosses a producer's desk.

Other items you should include with your pitch are a list of keymessages that outline the specifics you plan to cover and a shortbio-no more than a paragraph or two-that outlines yourexperience and expertise related to the topic you'repitching.

While it's perfectly acceptable to send pitches via snailmail, you may find that an e-mailed pitch will get a fasterresponse. "We don't have lunch; we don't get away fromour desks," says von Alvensleben of herself and her producercolleagues at CNNfn. "So e-mail is definitely the preferredway to reach us."

Finally, make sure your pitch letter includes a phone numberwhere you are instantly accessible. "Things happen so fast onnational TV that, if you aren't ready and available,they'll move on to the next person," Harrow says.

For this reason, entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Falkner, 38, ofCitizenCake, a San Francisco patisserie/bakery with $2 million inannual sales, put media inquiries above all other dailybusiness-even cookies that are ready to come out of the oven."I don't let anyone else talk to the media when theycall," Falkner says. "If you get a call from a produceror a reporter, it's because they're on deadline and theyneed an answer or a sound bite from you now. It helps to do somepreplanning about what you'll say if they call in response to apitch so you can react quickly and efficiently."

That's not the only reason preparation pays off. Producersoften screen prospective on-air experts by phone. "Someonewith a lot of energy and personality just screams to me on thephone," says Avelino Pombo of Edelman Productions, whichproduces Landscape Smart for HGTV. "If I invite alandscaper to come in with a portfolio after a phone interview,there's a 90 percent chance I'll use that person on theshow."

Work It

There's more to being on TV than sitting next to the hostand smiling engagingly. You should also:

  • Treat a phone call from a producer as an audition. SusanHarrow, author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked onOprah, suggests preparing brief, concise talking points andrehearsing them well.
  • Get media coaching before you go on national tv."Being interviewed by Katie Couric is a lot different thangiving a speech or making a sales pitch," says Steve Harrison,publisher of resource directory Bradley's Guide to the TopNational TV Talk & Interview Shows.
  • Keep your eyes focused on the host 100 percent of thetime. Says Harrow, "Audiences believe you're sincereand knowledgeable if you keep consistent, soft eyecontact."
  • Get your tv makeup done before you arrive at the studio.First, ask if professional makeup is available at the studio. Ifnot, go to either a salon or a department store makeup counter tohave your makeup done.
  • Keep the ideas coming. Doug Flynn of Flynn Zito CapitalManagement in Garden City, New York, sends his producermagazine articles related to his area of expertise and suggests howhe can discuss them on CNNfn.

3. Learn the Media Ropes

While a great pitch and the right expertise can definitely makea producer sit up and notice you, the reality is that your chancesof sitting next to the undisputed queen of daytime TV or any of theother big-time TV hosts-"in the good chairs," asHarrow puts it-are fairly low. After all, everyone wants tobe on the national shows, but few are called. However, you canimprove your odds of being one of those few by putting together abody of broadcast work on local TV first.

"You wouldn't consider trying to get booked on Broadwaybefore you starred in a dozen or more hometown plays, wouldyou?" Harrow asks rhetorically. "So get plenty ofpractice on your local news and talk shows. This will give you achance to fine-tune your sound bites so you won't be shocked bythe speed of national TV."

Pitch your ideas to the local media the same way you would tonational TV. Then, once you get those coveted appearances on tape,you should have duplicates made of the ones that can be sent to the"biggies." You'll also want to put streaming video ofyour appearances on your Web site (a Web site is anecessity-establish one immediately if you don't alreadyhave one) so you can send a link to producers you're querying.This allows them to see exactly how you come across on the smallscreen.

Doug Flynn, 37, of Flynn Zito Capital Management, amillion-dollar Garden City, New York, financial planning firm, hasdone this to his advantage. The personal finance expert is afrequent CNNfn guest who not only has recent streaming video on hisWeb site, but also has links to the Web sites of publications thathave run articles about him. Building this type of "broadcastportfolio" makes you look more professional and seasoned toproducers who want to be sure they can rely on you to be ananimated, intelligent and polished guest in front of thecameras.

Incidentally, sometimes a local TV spot can lead to nationalexposure. Rebecca Steven, 42, owner of TheChocolate Fountain in Wichita, Kansas-a $2 milliondistributor of stainless steel centerpieces used at weddings fordipping fruit and other goodies-was featured on several localTV stations and in many publications following an appearance lastNovember at the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show inNew York City. When USA Today published a small story aboutthe fountain with a photograph on the cover of its "Life"section, a producer at Good Morning America called Steven tocome in for an on-air segment. As a result of that segment, one ofher fountains was featured on the local network affiliate tocoincide with Trista & Ryan's Wedding, which aired lastfall.

Says Steven, "Months later, I'm still getting callsfrom people saying they saw the Good Morning Americasegment."

4. How to Handle Your "15 Minutes of Fame"

It goes without saying that your whole reason for getting on TVis to promote yourself and your business. But the best guests letthe host do the work for them. For example, Harrow says thatpracticing "egolessness" when on Oprah can reap hugebenefits. "If Oprah [Winfrey] loves you and spouts your wordas the bible of your industry...you've got it made," shesays.

Other hosts will do the same if you give them the opportunity.And if by chance the interview starts to go astray, there's afoolproof way to direct it back to your main message. "Asimple transition or bridge you can use in any circumstance is'I don't know about that, but what I do know is....'This one sentence can be a lifesaver," says Harrow.

No matter what you do know, somewhere there's a TV show thatmight be interested in hearing you talk about it. So set yoursights high, and let your imagination go, because with the rightpackaging, preparation and delivery, you could be the next Dr.Phil.

Make the Cut

"Anyone can get free publicity if they know how to doit," says Steve Harrison, publisher of trade magazineRadio-TV Interview Report and resource directoryBradley's Guide to the Top National TV Talk & InterviewShows. And he should know-he has helped 12,000 people getairtime since 1986. Here are his tips for landing a spot onAmerica's top-rated programs:

  • Today: Pitch ideas that are tied into a current newstrend or recent event.
  • The View: Study the hosts' personalities, and pitchideas that would appeal to a particular host.
  • Live with Regis and Kelly: Pitch your ideas on Monday orTuesday rather than later in the week, since all show decisions aremade at the beginning of the week. "And you've got to befunny," Harrison says.
  • The Tonight show with Jay Leno: You have to do somethingoff-the-wall or wacky to land on this show. Having a celebrityspokesperson for your product or service also helps.
  • Larry King live: "It's difficult to get on thisshow if you're not a celebrity, unless you're veryqualified to discuss something that's in the news,"Harrison says.
  • Good Morning America: Do something visual, and useprops. For example, the authors of a relationship book who talkedon the air about common couples' arguments brought a"Gripe Bag" containing a remote control, a checkbook, carkeys and other props.
  • Finally, to get on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the"holy grail" of publicity, Susan Harrow, author of TheUltimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah, suggests offering tosolve a problem for Oprah Winfrey and her audience. Also, don'tpitch ideas during sweeps weeks or summer hiatus (they're toobusy concocting ratings-boosting blockbuster shows), and don'tsuggest topics that involve sex, psychics or diets.

Eileen Figure Sandlin is an award-winning freelance writerand author who writes on a wide range of business topics.

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