Since 1977, over 10,000 Spokespersons Trained.
Part 4 - Television Talk Show and Panel Debates

Chapter 21
Television Talk Show Debates

On occasion you may be invited to appear with someone who holds an opposing view on a television “talk show.”1

I chose to devote a separate chapter to talk shows because they require special considerations that can best be dealt with separately. Also, more and more local television stations are satisfying FCC public-service rules by dealing with controversial issues in this easy-to-set-up format. Unlike panel debates – where you may reach an audience of a few hundred – they talk show offers you an opportunity to reach thousands, or even millions. The states are the highest.

Ground Rules

The panel debate involves numerous ground rules that you ought to be aware of and that you must adhere to; we discussed ways in which you might be able to negotiate rules in your favor. Exactly the opposite is true for the talk show. The only ground rule you’ll find in the typical talk show is the one concerning whether viewer call-in questions will be taken. If you’re taping, instead of broadcasting live, questions from viewers will usually not be taken.

Usually talk shows are wide open; any guest can grab the floor at any time, within reason. Be prepared to jump in with both feet whenever you see fit. Expect both your opponent and the talk show host to throw pithy, difficult questions your way. Many of the spokespersons I have worked with, complain that they find it difficult to make points during talk shows, for lack of obvious opportunities. During training sessions, two reasons emerge why this may be true. First, I have found novice spokespersons are reluctant to speak out. But on television, you must be assertive. You can’t afford to let precious minutes tick away without so much as your getting a word in. Before you know it, the show has ended, and your opponent has won the discussion by default.

The second problem is the unaccustomed need to speak in short, concise statements. Many rookie spokespersons have a tendency to give long-winded, rambling answers to fairly direct questions. This gives their opponents too many opportunities to steal the floor – which comes as welcome relief for the now-bored home viewers. If their opponents don’t steal the floor, the host probably will. Air time goes by so quickly that in order to survive you must develop the ability to state your case in 15-30 seconds. The only way to be effective at this is to practice and to appreciate the viewing audience’s frame of reference.

The Host

An important part of your preparation for the show should be to watch the show for as much as a week or two prior to your tape date. This will give you a good feeling for how the show works; it will also help you understand the style and personality of the host. By getting to know the host as a viewer, you may be more comfortable when you appear with him/her as a guest.

Before the show begins, there is usually a little small talk between the host and his/her guests to loosen up the guests (a nervous and stiff guest rarely makes a good guest). During this small talk it doesn’t hurt to subtly mention to the host how interesting you thought his/her show was last week. Positive stroking may help incline the host slightly in your direction. Although we would like as television viewers to believe that hosts are immune to this type of blandishment, we have to admit that they’re human.

If you are unsuccessful in building complete rapport with the host, don’t worry – and try not to antagonize him/her. You have enough to do when you debate your opponent, without the added burden of taking on the host simultaneously. Treat your host with respect; understand that when he/she throws a tough question your way, they’re not usually doing so out of malice. Remember that most of the people viewing the show are doing so because they like the host. The host’s charisma, together with the interesting guests the host finds are the two reasons why viewers return week after week. Those people who watch the show to see you or your opponent usually have already formed firm positions on the issues under discussion. You want to reach the large segment of viewers who are “undecided.” They are the same viewers who hold the host in high esteem.

Call-in Questions

Successful talk-show hosts know that one way to enhance the audience appeal of their shows is to encourage audience participation. Because of that, more and more shows are encouraging audience questions. The very successful format followed by Phil Donahue involves members of the immediate audience, as well as calls solicited from viewers.

When call-in questions are to be included in the show, it’s a good idea to create a follow-up system that allows you to get back to callers on questions you simply can’t answer on the spot. Letting questions stand unanswered not only creates one dissatisfied caller; it makes a bad impression on the other viewers. Audiences will forgive you for not knowing the answer if you promise to follow up, and to get the answer to the interested party.

The best way to establish such a system is to explain your offer to your contact at the station; ask what he/she suggests. The station undoubtedly has dealt with this situation before, and will be able to offer a solution. This usually entails the caller simply leaving a name, number, and question with the station operator off-air before hanging up.

A final word on call-in questions. When questions are directed explicitly to your opponent, it’s nevertheless fair game for you to offer your response following your opponent’s answer. Keep your remarks very brief, but if you have something important to offer, speak up.

The Studio

Studios vary in size, shape, complexity, and sophistication. What they all have in common is a lot of technology; they tend to intimidate spokespersons unaccustomed to this very specialized environment. A better understanding of what goes on behind all those bright lights can help defuse some of the anxiety you may feel.

Studios usually come in one-, two- or three-camera set-ups. A small-town station may have only a single camera; most large stations, on the other hand, have at least two cameras, and usually three.

In addition to the equipment shown in the drawing, there are several beams or racks of overhead lights, people scurrying about taking care of business, and a number of microphones.

Microphones come in three basic varieties: (1) overhead mikes suspended from booms; (2) lavaliere mikes worn around the neck; and (3) mikes free-standing on the table or floor.

Now that you know about all this space-age communications equipment, ignore it – all of it. Your job is to talk to the host and to debate your opponent. Let the technicians worry about capturing those exchanges and sending them along to the home viewers. Don’t try to outsmart or direct the station’s technology. Don’t look directly into the camera or strain to speak directly into the microphone. Be natural; focus your attention on taking care of articulating and defending your position.

You may wonder why it seems that people appear to be looking directly into the camera during talk shows. It’s a product of good camera-work. But don’t presume that just because the camera is there that your face is entirely filling the viewer’s screen – wrinkles and all. Each camera is operated by a separate cameraperson. The cameraperson takes instructions via a headset from a person in the control room, who receives three continuous pictures, one from each camera. This person decides which of the three pictures should be broadcast to the viewer; he/she operates a machine that transmits the selection to the viewing audience. This person has the responsibility of making the show visually interesting. As such, he/she will rotate from one camera to another to maintain variety. While the opponent is speaking, you can count on their taping your reaction.

Usually, there will be a television set (monitor) in plain view, if you want to refer to it to see what’s being received in the viewer’s home. There is also a red light on the camera whose picture is being taped or broadcast. It’s best that you ignore all this activity, though: concentrate on the debate.


Grooming for television requires a few special considerations. Certain colors and patterns, for instance, are not compatible with the technology. Chapter 10 mentions some of the pitfalls to watch out for, and offers some specialized grooming tips. Bold prints, busy patterns, short dresses and pants, noisy jewelry, and white shirts and blouses should all be avoided.

Another consideration is the heat generated by hot studio lighting. Wearing something cool may make you appear more comfortable. Remember that you’ll be sitting down throughout the show. If you plan to wear an outfit that looks great when you are standing up, but looks scrunched when you are sitting, reconsider your selection.

Studio personnel may want to powder your face to cut down on “shine.” Don’t resist. The way you look is a reflection on their professionalism. If you look bad, they look bad. Trust their judgment, and cooperate to the best of your ability.

Hair and hairstyles are another special consideration for television. Hairstyles that hang down the side of your face may actually conceal your face when you are viewed from an angle. Wear a style that keeps your hair out of your face.

Delivery Skills

The delivery skills we discussed throughout Part I are critical to a successful talk-show appearance. You have only a brief time, perhaps five minutes of actual speaking time (you’re lucky to get that much), so it’s imperative that you put your best foot forward. A monotonous or unemphatic delivery will surely alienate your audience. You must be lively and interesting. Obvious energy will fortify the conviction you communicate and make you more persuasive.

Being seated during a talk show automatically limits the physical tools you have to work with. Your hands will only be seen during wide-angle shots. Much of the show will consist visually of close-ups; facial expressions become very important. Remember to keep a warm, friendly smile on your face – not a nervous or archly serious scowl. Build rapport with the audience even though you can’t see them – get them to like you.

The best way to cultivate effective talk-show skills is to practice. After taping and reviewing a series of simulated talk-show debates where you presented and defended your case, you’ll begin to develop a good feeling for how you come across on television.2 Believe it or not, effective talk show skills can be developed with practice.

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