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On-Camera Criteria

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Before I went into business for myself, I was Director of Talent Development for an agency that represented TV news anchors and reporters.

One of my responsibilities was weeding through DVDs of potential clients. Unlike most people, I tried to watch a reporter or anchor’s entire demo reel. (I remembered what it was like trying to get that big break.) But truly, I could tell you within the first five seconds whether someone had a shot at being represented by us.

Today, I find myself looking for many of these same qualities when critiquing the on-camera performances of my clients, especially ones who want to be adopted by the media as experts in their field.

Criteria

1. “IT” For me, it’s all in the eyes. It’s a charisma and confidence that some people possess.

2. Looks: Is the person attractive? Good looking? In good shape? It all matters. I’d by lying if I said it didn’t.

3. Voice and delivery: Did he sound conversational and natural? Did she know how to “hit” key words in a sentence? Does he have an accent that makes him tough to understand?

4. Live Interviews: Is she good at going live? Can he turn on a dime? Is she good under pressure?

5. Personality: This is especially important if you would like to be a host or want to be the go-to subject matter expert for a news program. Are you personable? Will viewers want to tune in and make you part of their family? Are you warm and welcoming? Are you goofy and funny? They can all work—depending on the job.

Bottom Line

If you’ve got all of these things going for you, bookers will be clamoring to get you on their shows.

If you’ve got the first three—you’ll still receive a ton of phone calls.

If you only possess the last two– you’ll likely have a harder time getting booked because it takes a special person to celebrate your talents when you’re lacking in charisma and stunning good looks.

 

Pressure to Perform

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“Feel the breeze!” the shortstop shouted at me.

Much as I wanted to hit her at that moment–she wasn’t wrong. I didn’t even come close to connecting with the pitch. But if I had, it would have sailed to the moon. I nearly did a 360 after my missed swing. That’s how badly I wanted to rip the cover off the ball.

The game was on the line. It was the bottom of the ninth inning. We were down by two– with two runners on base. There were two outs and I was at bat, facing a full count. One more swing like that and the game was over.

Time Out

I stepped out of the box and collected myself. Instinctively, I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself. I didn’t need to hit a home run. I just needed to hit the softball.

I stepped back into the batter’s box and waited for my pitch. It was a little high. It was probably ball four, but I liked it and I wasn’t batting clean-up for nothing. I killed that ball. It didn’t land on the moon, but it nearly cleared the left field wall. The outfielder mistimed her jump and bobbled the ball. It was an inside the park home run! We won!

Gut Check

It was over a decade before I thought about that at bat again. I was watching my TV news live shots and I found them lacking. They were good, but they weren’t great. They weren’t memorable. I wasn’t loose. I wasn’t charismatic. I didn’t look comfortable. In short, I was trying too hard.

It took me awhile but I realized what my problem was: I was putting too much pressure on myself to be perfect. I thought I needed a perfect live shot to put on my resume tape (“escape tape”) to get a better job in a bigger market. What I needed to do was relax.

Right Mindset

The next time I went live on breaking news I decided to roll with the punches. I talked about what was happening around me. I walked and talked. I never once thought about whether this would be perfect for my resume tape. I just did my job to the best of my ability, and I was great! I watched the tape back the next day and I thought, I’m back!

Perfection Trap

Most of us get caught up in being perfect, especially if we are doing something that is new to us. It’s not easy to give speeches when you’re terrified of public speaking. It’s hard to give good, concise answers when a reporter is asking you questions if you’ve never been interviewed before. It’s also tough to look and sound perfect every time you go live when you’re working 12-hour days in TV news.

My Advice

Cut yourself a break. Not every word you say will be enunciated perfectly. You won’t always project great charisma and energy, especially at the end of a long day. And sometimes you’ll make a mistake. It happens. No one is perfect all of the time, and those that are, often aren’t worth remembering.

In my opinion, greatness comes in those moments when you let go, trusting that your best instincts will win out.

TV News Interviews

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It was my third flight of the day. I was on my way to interview at a top 30 station, which was no small feat, given that I was currently a weekend anchor/ reporter in Abilene, Texas—market #153.

The flight was one of the bumpiest I have ever experienced. As soon as I hit the terminal, I ran to a garbage can and puked my guts up. It was an omen of things to come.

Thankfully, the news director was late, so he didn’t witness my very public vomiting. He took me to dinner and proceeded to grill me for the next hour and a half. I don’t remember much of the conversation because my head was pounding. I do recall describing a gut check moment about the importance of being objective when I was a producer at CNN. I knew he didn’t like my answer. Possibly because I was too honest or earnest? Who knows?

Part Two

Day two opened with him grilling me about the 10 stories and two newscasts that I had sent him. He wanted to know who was helping me write my packages?

My eyes talk. And I am fairly certain they got me into trouble on this particular day as I said, “Whom do you imagine in market 153 is writing packages for me—a former CNN producer?”

He said, “Oh, yes. CNN. I called your references. They certainly think you’re smart.”

The subtext of all of this was that I was way too attractive to be this smart, thus someone must be helping me.

After that, I threw caution to the wind. No matter how badly I wanted out of Abilene, Texas—I vowed never to work for this jerk. So as he dropped me off at the airport that evening I asked, “So when will you make a decision?”

“Well, I have two more people to interview.”

“But what are my chances?” I pressed.

“Well, I couldn’t say.”

“Can’t or won’t,” I said.

“Well, this is ummm very forward of you,” he said.

“Good reporters are forward. And they aren’t afraid to ask tough questions.”

“Well, ummm we’ll let you know,” he said as I closed the door on him and that job.

Lesson: Sometimes jobs simply aren’t a good fit. And no matter how badly you want to move up—you should keep looking until you find someplace that values your skills.

Having said that, it is the news business. And if you wait to find a nirvana newsroom—you’ll be waiting for a long time. Newsrooms are vicious, brutal, cutthroat places to work. But if you can find at least one manager, who recognizes your talent AND is willing to nurture it, jump at the chance to work for him.

Small World Postscript

Ten years after that interview, I found myself on a panel with the aforementioned news director. We were giving advice to college journalism majors on how to succeed on interviews and land that first on-air job.

I didn’t name him–BUT with him sitting beside me– I told the highlights of the story I just told you. I said, “Things all work out the way they’re supposed to. That would have been a very bad fit—working for someone, who didn’t value my talents.”

And to be fair to him—he followed up my comments by saying, “Sometimes –as a news director—you make mistakes. I know that I misjudged one woman in particular and she went on to do very well for herself. She even won a National Edward R. Murrow for Best Feature.” (Yes, I did!)

No one else in the room made the connection. But I did. And I have to say that it put things into perspective. And I ended with this advice:

“Find the job that is a good fit for you and your skills. Don’t try to be whatever the job calls for or what you think they are looking for. Be yourself. Show them who you are – as a person and a journalist—and let the chips fall where they may. Those who value you and your work will hire you. Those who don’t—usually won’t. And you’ll find in time that the ones who didn’t hire you actually did you a favor.”

 

Confidence is the Greatest Accessory

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I was waiting for the train to Florence to arrive when I noticed a man across the tracks.

Yes, ladies–he was good looking. But that’s not why I noticed him. (Throw a rock and you’ll hit a good looking man in Italy.) I noticed him because of what he was wearing. He had on expensively cut orange trousers, a wine colored cashmere sweater, a camel cashmere scarf and a bright navy blue beret. The combination should have been all kinds of wrong on the middle aged man. But on him it was all kinds of right. The reason? He wore his ensemble with great confidence.

This man is an excellent example of what I preach to people that I coach. When you’re presenting and giving on-camera interviews, it’s good to be memorable. It’s great to be unique. And most of all– it’s important to be confident. It’s easily the most important accessory you can wear.

If that man wasn’t confident in himself, I might have asked him how long the circus was going to be in town. (OK, I wouldn’t have been that rude.) Instead, I admired his flair for the dramatic. And not only did the memory of his je ne sais quoi stay with me some two weeks later– I am writing about him in my blog.

Learning from Mistakes

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I had been on the air in Abilene, Texas for about three months when I went live from a Friday Night football rally. A band was playing and they marched right behind me during my liveshot.

Rookie that I was, I started talking louder and louder as the band got closer and closer. As they bore down on me, I was shouting into the microphone—thinking this was the only way viewers would be able to hear me. I was wrong.

Later that evening, when I walked into the newsroom, my news director said, “McGrath—that’s a one directional microphone. It’s mostly picking up your audio. Yes, the band is behind you. But there’s no need to shout.”

Dejected, I said, “I should have just moved the mic closer to my mouth, right?”

“Yes.”

I felt even worse when I watched the tape back. I was shouting like a fisher wife. I wanted to go crawl in a corner and lick my wounds. But I didn’t. I gave myself a swift kick in the behind and said, “Tomorrow’s another day.”

Lesson Learned

I often tell that story to new clients. For one thing– it’s pretty funny! (Although I didn’t think so at the time.) Two– it reminds people to set realistic goals for themselves.

When you’re new to doing media interviews or public speaking, you’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. No one masters any skill the first few times they try it. It takes lots of practice.

The key is to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes and vow to do better next time.

 
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Speaking with an Accent

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My parents are from Ireland. I grew up in a melting pot neighborhood in Chicago. I travel internationally to work with clients whose first language is not English. As such, I am used to listening to people speak with various accents.

Working with Clients

With few exceptions, my clients’ English is quite good. Yet it is rare that I meet someone, who is confident in their ability to communicate in a language that is not their native tongue.

The biggest issue that I encounter: people trying to Americanize/Anglicize their accent to the point that their speech is stilted or painfully slow. When I point this out to them, I always tell actress/comedienne Fran Drescher’s story.

A-ha! Moment

Drescher is from Queens, New York. She is easily recognized by her “New Yawk” accent. Drescher felt that accent was costing her a lot of acting roles, so she went to a speech coach to get rid of it. Much to her surprise, she wasn’t pleased with the end result. Drescher felt like she had lost all spontaneity in her speech. She was thinking about it too much and that severely hampered her comedic timing. So what did she do? Drescher decided to speak in her own voice. It became her signature. It made her memorable! It landed her a successful television series.

Advice

My advice to clients: Embrace who you are and where you are from. Most people like accents. They make you who you are. Yes, you need to be understood. But if you’re appearing on-camera, you also need to be memorable and comfortable in your own skin. You never will be if you’re focused on sounding like someone else.

 

 
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Curveballs & Confidence

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Derek JeterDerek Jeter of the New York Yankees said something during a 60 Minutes interview that resonated and stayed with me. He said if you want to be a successful shortstop, you have to want every single ball to be hit to you.

As a shortstop, especially one who hates to sit still, I absolutely agreed with him. You must be confident and fearless to play the most pivotal defensive position in the infield.

The same holds true for those appearing on reality shows, where producers thrive on throwing curveballs at contestants. You have to not only expect the unexpected, but you have to perform well under pressure.

American Idol Contestant

Ashthon Jones did just that on American Idol. To the surprise of many, she didn’t make the Top 10. BUT she was the first one called to audition on-the-spot for a wildcard slot.

As they announced her name, she pointed at the judges as if to say, Yes! I am ready! The viewers made a mistake and I am about to prove them wrong!

Her bold song choice was “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” I cheered her on as I watched her sing it directly to the judges. It was a very good performance, especially under the circumstances. Could she have done better? Possibly. But she sold it!

And that confidence is what sold the judges and earned her a spot in the Top 13. Ashthon didn’t care what viewers or producers threw her way. She came to win. And I’ll be damned if she didn’t make me think she could win the whole thing.

THAT is confidence.

 
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Presenting at
the Golden Globes

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Everyone who has trouble presenting in front of a large audience can take comfort from the presenters at the Golden Globes. These are ACTORS and ACTRESSES–who make their living from performing–and yet many of them don’t present well.

They have the same problems most people do.

1. They don’t read well off of a teleprompter; their eyes shift from side to side as they read.

2. They don’t practice their lines. As a result, they stumble through the copy and/or slaughter the pronunciation of people’s names.

3. Their body language is tense; they are nervous and stiff. Some even cling to their co-presenter for moral support.

The presenters and winners who were most memorable were the ones who ad libbed. My guess is that they had thought about what they wanted to say. And perhaps they even practiced their speech. Regardless- they delivered it in such a natural, spontaneous way (they are actors) that I believed them.

I cheered for Mo’nique. I laughed with Robert Downey Junior. And  I applauded Sandra Bullock’s class. Others looked good and delivered their lines well. But for me– those three stood out. They were memorable for all of the right reasons.

When Losing is Winning

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21 year-old golfer, Rory McIlroy, started imploding on the tenth hole of the final round of The Masters on Sunday. It was tough to watch his game and his confidence disintegrate over the last nine holes. Up until then he had been leading a very impressive field, including Tiger Woods.

Interestingly, Woods, 35, had a tough day Saturday. He missed far too many putts. Had he made even half of them, he’d likely have been at the top of the leader board with McIlroy going into the final round.

Interviews

I saw Woods being interviewed yesterday after his tough day, and I saw McIlroy being interviewed today after letting The Masters slip through his fingertips. I was amazed at how differently they handled the interviews. The surprise was that the 21 year-old was gracious in defeat and Woods, who still had a day to play, was bordering on belligerent yesterday. Had the roles been reversed, you might have forgiven a young kid for being upset. But a 35 year-old man should know better.

I’ll grant you, Tiger has never been known for being nice to the press when he was playing poorly. But he was hostile to the CBS reporter conducting the live interview yesterday. Tiger answered questions with a minimum of words, while looking at the reporter like he was a piece of dirt on the bottom of his shoe. (Most golfers are contractually obligated to do interviews with the networks that carry the big tournaments. Tiger made it clear that he would fulfill his obligation and no more.)

In stark contrast, Rory McIlroy was clearly disappointed today, yet he politely and patiently answered every question he was asked. After the second “you must be disappointed question” Rory actually had the presence of mind to take control of the interview and make it work for him. Displaying a calm that I’m sure he didn’t feel, he said that while he was disappointed in his game today, he wanted to celebrate the positives too. For 63 holes he led The Masters.

When pushed further about what he might have learned from his round today, McIlroy said, “If I reflect on it over the next few days, I’ll probably be able to tell you a little bit better. But I can’t really put my finger on it. ”

And even though I’m sure he’d rather have been off licking his wounds somewhere, Rory did his best to give the reporter even more. He added that overall he lost confidence in his putting and second-guessed himself today.

Sponsors

I don’t know if Rory McIlroy has been media trained. He may very well just be a natural. He strikes me as a nice young man, who knows how lucky he is to play the game he loves.

I am guessing that he’s also smart enough to know that the longer he’s interviewed—the longer his sponsors (on his hat and shirt) are seen on live television.

And if I’m one of McIlroy’s sponsors, I am not only celebrating the fact that my company is getting a ton of airtime on network television, but the fact that Rory’s a class act. Even though he lost, I’d be proud that this kid was representing our brand because that kind of poise and grace–on the heels of an agonizing defeat–has a value beyond measure.

At 21, Rory McIlroy has done what 35 year-old Tiger Woods has never been able to do: he turned a loss into a huge WIN for himself and his sponsors.

 
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No Excuses

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I was moved to tears by Joannie Rouchette’s performance at the Olympics last night. Still grieving the loss of her mother, she somehow managed to skate beautifully. There were no excuses. No interviews beforehand about how she might not due well under the circumstances. Joannie just went out there and skated her heart out. I wonder if Lindsey Vonn and Yevgeny Plushenko were watching.

Lindsey Vonn has spoken early and often about her shin injury and how it is impacting her skiing. Her husband has complained about the tough course conditions. He has also blamed an Austrian coach for purposefully making the super combined course too tough for Lindsey to ski with her injury. (Nope, Lindsey did not medal in the super combined event.)

Similarly, Yevgeny Plushenko claims he was robbed of a gold medal in the men’s ice skating competition. He has even presented himself with a platinum medal on his website.

News Flash Lindsey and Yevgeny: No one likes a sore loser, least of all, sponsors.

If I were a sponsor with money to spend, I’d look no further than Joannie Rouchette. She is the essence of true courage and grace under pressure. Joannie skated for her mother and her love of the sport. And that is worth more than all of the gold in the world.

No matter how Joannie finishes in the standings– in my book–  she is platinum.

 

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