Lights! Camera! Action!

Do you dream of promoting your business on Oprah or the Today show, but don’t know where to start? Here’s the inside scoop on harnessing the power of TV — so get ready for your close-up.

By Eileen Figure Sandlin

entri1When interior designer Lee Snijders first appeared on HGTV’s popular decorating show Designers’ Challenge in 2002, he assumed he’d get a flurry of inquiries from prospects and some promising leads for new work. What he didn’t expect was an avalanche of new business.

“During the first commercial break, my girlfriend and I checked my e-mail, and I already had 15 e-mails from people requesting whole home designs,” says Snijders, founder of Lee Snijders Designs. “By the next morning, I had received 225 e-mails. I was ecstatic.”

Such is the power of TV, that all-pervasive electronic medium that entertains us, educates us and lifts our spirits. More important for entrepreneurs, TV can provide a wealth of opportunities for promoting products and services to a wide audience you otherwise might not reach — and without the exorbitant expenses associated with paid advertising.

“Every time that show airs, it’s like a free commercial for me,” Snijders, 36, says. “My Web site lights up, the e-mails come in, and I get a new influx of clients. It has been surreal for me.”

And that modest first appearance has paid off for Snijders in another significant way: In addition to making two more appearances on Designers’ Challenge, he landed his own HGTV show, Design on a Dime, last year, and his innovative work is now seen regularly by 88 million viewers. He’s also in the enviable position of pursuing licensing deals and endorsements that one day could be worth millions.

“Being on TV can make you a millionaire — or it can have absolutely no effect on your business at all,” says Susan Harrow, a media coach and marketing strategist in Oakland, California, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah: Ten Steps to Becoming a Guest on the World’s Top Talk Show. “For your career to take off, you must prepare in advance to make the most of your TV appearances.”

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

Just as every business needs a carefully constructed business and marketing plan to ensure success, every entrepreneur who wants to break into TV needs a media strategy. It’s not enough to have a great product or service, or a lively personality for pitching it well. You also have to do your homework before you ever attempt 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 a problem or help people do something better. They love motivational stories and those with emotional appeal. They also look for people whose products and services relate to current trends. For example, anything you can do or offer right now that ties into the low-carb diet craze might be perceived as newsworthy by a TV producer.

Next, watch the show you’re dying to appear on so you can become familiar with the host’s style and the program’s content and pace. And watch it a lot, either by tuning in every day or by setting your TiVo or VCR to catch the program for a couple of weeks. Then, review every segment carefully to pick up on common themes and styles.

You’ll also want to check out the show’s Web site for insider information. For instance, if you click on the “Be a Guest” link on The Oprah Winfrey Show Web site, you’ll find dozens of show subjects the producers are currently pursuing. It’s always easier to fit into a category producers are already working on than to pitch your own idea, so take advantage of any helpful hints they provide on their Web site as a way to zero in on their needs.

To position yourself as an expert in your field and attract the attention of producers, be sure to emphasize your own expertise and background as well. “We only use experts with credibility,” says Chantal von Alvensleben, editorial producer of Your Money on CNNfn. “We hear from a lot of people who say, ‘I opened a business two years ago, so now I’m an expert.’ But if you want to talk about financial planning issues 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’s no story, there’s no reason to have you on the show, so a good pitch is essential.”

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

Your initial pitch, or proposal, can make or break your chances of getting a coveted pre-broadcast audition. The pitch should not only propose a dynamic topic on a timely subject, but also include enough information about you and your idea to pique producers’ interest, inducing them to reach for the phone and call you immediately to learn more.

According to Harrow, a well-crafted pitch should summarize your idea or story angle in a few sentences and should suggest two or three different variations on the same theme in case one of them has already been done or doesn’t quite meet a producer’s needs. She also recommends phrasing the topic dramatically and with a negative slant, as in “How your children’s lunches can harm them” (instead of “Healthy eating for kids”). Such a provocative approach is likely to elicit more interest when it crosses a producer’s desk.

Other items you should include with your pitch are a list of key messages that outline the specifics you plan to cover and a short bio — no more than a paragraph or two — that outlines your experience and expertise related to the topic you’re pitching.

While it’s perfectly acceptable to send pitches via snail mail, you may find that an e-mailed pitch will get a faster response. “We don’t have lunch; we don’t get away from our desks,” says von Alvensleben of herself and her producer colleagues at CNNfn. “So e-mail is definitely the preferred way to reach us.”

Finally, make sure your pitch letter includes a phone number where you are instantly accessible. “Things happen so fast on national 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, of Citizen Cake, a San Francisco patisserie/bakery with $2 million in annual sales, put media inquiries above all other daily business — even cookies that are ready to come out of the oven. “I don’t let anyone else talk to the media when they call,” Falkner says. “If you get a call from a producer or a reporter, it’s because they’re on deadline and they need an answer or a sound bite from you now. It helps to do some preplanning about what you’ll say if they call in response to a pitch so you can react quickly and efficiently.”

That’s not the only reason preparation pays off. Producers often screen prospective on-air experts by phone. “Someone with a lot of energy and personality just screams to me on the phone,” says Avelino Pombo of Edelman Productions, which produces Landscape Smart for HGTV. “If I invite a landscaper to come in with a portfolio after a phone interview, there’s a 90 percent chance I’ll use that person on the show.”

Work It

There’s more to being on TV than sitting next to the host and smiling engagingly. You should also:

  • Treat a phone call from a producer as an audition. Susan Harrow, author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah, suggests preparing brief, concise talking points and rehearsing them well.
  • Get media coaching before you go on national TV. “Being interviewed by Katie Couric is a lot different than giving a speech or making a sales pitch,” says Steve Harrison, publisher of resource directory Bradley’s Guide to the Top National TV Talk & Interview Shows.
  • Keep your eyes focused on the host 100 percent of the time. Says Harrow, “Audiences believe you’re sincere and knowledgeable if you keep consistent, soft eye contact.”
  • Get your TV makeup done before you arrive at the studio. First, ask if professional makeup is available at the studio. If not, go to either a salon or a department store makeup counter to have your makeup done.
  • Keep the ideas coming. Doug Flynn of Flynn Zito Capital Management in Garden City, New York, sends his producer magazine articles related to his area of expertise and suggests how he can discuss them on CNNfn.

While a great pitch and the right expertise can definitely make a producer sit up and notice you, the reality is that your chances of sitting next to the undisputed queen of daytime TV or any of the other big-time TV hosts — “in the good chairs,” as Harrow puts it — are fairly low. After all, everyone wants to be on the national shows, but few are called. However, you can improve your odds of being one of those few by putting together a body of broadcast work on local TV first.

“You wouldn’t consider trying to get booked on Broadway before you starred in a dozen or more hometown plays, would you?” Harrow asks rhetorically. “So get plenty of practice on your local news and talk shows. This will give you a chance to fine-tune your sound bites so you won’t be shocked by the speed of national TV.”

Pitch your ideas to the local media the same way you would to national 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 of your appearances on your Web site (a Web site is a necessity — establish one immediately if you don’t already have one) so you can send a link to producers you’re querying. This allows them to see exactly how you come across on the small screen.

Doug Flynn, 37, of Flynn Zito Capital Management, a million-dollar Garden City, New York, financial planning firm, has done this to his advantage. The personal finance expert is a frequent CNNfn guest who not only has recent streaming video on his Web site, but also has links to the Web sites of publications that have run articles about him. Building this type of “broadcast portfolio” makes you look more professional and seasoned to producers who want to be sure they can rely on you to be an animated, intelligent and polished guest in front of the cameras.

Incidentally, sometimes a local TV spot can lead to national exposure. Rebecca Steven, 42, owner of The Chocolate Fountain in Wichita, Kansas — a $2 million distributor of stainless steel centerpieces used at weddings for dipping fruit and other goodies — was featured on several local TV stations and in many publications following an appearance last November at the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show in New York City. When USA Today published a small story about the fountain with a photograph on the cover of its “Life” section, a producer at Good Morning America called Steven to come in for an on-air segment. As a result of that segment, one of her fountains was featured on the local network affiliate to coincide with Trista & Ryan’s Wedding, which aired last fall.

Says Steven, “Months later, I’m still getting calls from people saying they saw the Good Morning America segment.”

4. How to Handle Your “15 Minutes of Fame”

It goes without saying that your whole reason for getting on TV is to promote yourself and your business. But the best guests let the host do the work for them. For example, Harrow says that practicing “egolessness” when on Oprah can reap huge benefits. “If Oprah [Winfrey] loves you and spouts your word as the bible of your industry… you’ve got it made,” she says.

Other hosts will do the same if you give them the opportunity. And if by chance the interview starts to go astray, there’s a foolproof way to direct it back to your main message. “A simple 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 that might be interested in hearing you talk about it. So set your sights high, and let your imagination go, because with the right packaging, preparation and delivery, you could be the next Dr. Phil.

Make the Cut

“Anyone can get free publicity if they know how to do it,” says Steve Harrison, publisher of trade magazine Radio-TV Interview Report and resource directory Bradley’s Guide to the Top National TV Talk & Interview Shows. And he should know — he has helped 12,000 people get airtime since 1986. Here are his tips for landing a spot on America’s top-rated programs:

  • Today: Pitch ideas that are tied into a current news trend or recent event.
  • The View: Study the hosts’ personalities, and pitch ideas that would appeal to a particular host.
  • Live with Regis and Kelly: Pitch your ideas on Monday or Tuesday rather than later in the week, since all show decisions are made at the beginning of the week. “And you’ve got to be funny,” Harrison says.
  • The Tonight show with Jay Leno: You have to do something off-the-wall or wacky to land on this show. Having a celebrity spokesperson for your product or service also helps.
  • Larry King Live: “It’s difficult to get on this show if you’re not a celebrity, unless you’re very qualified to discuss something that’s in the news,” Harrison says.
  • Good Morning America: Do something visual, and use props. For example, the authors of a relationship book who talked on the air about common couples’ arguments brought a “Gripe Bag” containing a remote control, a checkbook, car keys and other props.
  • Finally, to get on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the “holy grail” of publicity, Susan Harrow, author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah, suggests offering to solve a problem for Oprah Winfrey and her audience. Also, don’t pitch ideas during sweeps weeks or summer hiatus (they’re too busy concocting ratings-boosting blockbuster shows), and don’t suggest topics that involve sex, psychics or diets.