Pundit School: How Talking Heads Learn to ‘TV’

Television overflows with yakking heads. Tune in at any hour and you’ll find preternaturally attractive people jawing about everything from politics to poultry. “How do they find so many top-notch experts?” you may ask, naively.

Well, the truth is that lots of these “experts” have had the benefit of professional media coaching. They’ve been taught to TV.

If you want to get booked on a show, honing your skills with a reputable media coach is probably a smart idea. It’s a good investment as well for savvy business executives, lawyers, politicians, and even news anchors, all of whom know that being on television can enhance one’s career — or, in a single calamitous moment, flatten it.

T.J. Walker, a New York-based media coach who’s counted several heads of state (Bangkok, Slovenia, and Australia) among his clientele, told me, “The issues may be different, but everyone wants to learn the exact same things”: how to be comfortable on camera, craft a clear message that can be delivered in 30 seconds, respond to difficult questions, and package sharp sound bites.

“You don’t need to look like George Clooney,” Walker told me (although it helps). “If you want to be on TV, have something interesting to say.” And learn to stay cool under stress.

Given their ubiquity on our screens, you might ask why politicians, of all people, would bother with media training. Most are practiced on-camera vets. Exactly. “They plateau,” Walker said. “They don’t advance to the next level.”

Trainers tend to keep a catalogue of do’s and don’ts, and there’s some general agreement on these. Of the two, the don’ts are more fascinating. For example, when you’re on TV, don’t clasp your hands, don’t point at the camera, and don’t apologize for minor fumbles.

When you’re on TV, don’t clasp your hands, don’t point at the camera, and don’t apologize for minor fumbles.

Of course, every coach emphasizes different things. Suzanne Sena, who operates out of Los Angeles, places a great deal of attention on “confidence and likability.”

Sena told me that most people, when they begin studying with her, speak too fast. And they often dislike the sound of their own voice. A few have needed a glass of wine to calm jitters. Fortunately, everyone improves.

I asked, “Is it a good idea to smile a lot when you’re on TV?” Unless the situation is way awkward, Sena said, definitely yes. Yet that has sometimes been a sensitive matter for women. “They feel they won’t come across as serious if they smile.”

Sena charges as much as $500 an hour for one-on-one coaching. That’s steep, but she has the creds. She was a Fox News anchor and star of the cable-TV (IFC) series The Onion News Network before launching her coaching business. Remarkably, some coaches have never actually held on-camera jobs. Sena, with all her experience, has contempt for that bunch.

So does Terry Anzur, another L.A.-based trainer, who was a long-time TV anchor at both the national and local levels before shifting focus. Anzur is a sub-specialist: She works mainly with reporters and anchors, but the same basic rules apply.

Appearance, she said when we talked, counts a lot. For women: “Cut your hair properly. It should frame your face.” For men: “If you’re going for the unshaven look, invest in a good beard-trimming instrument. High-definition TV is unforgiving.”

Finally, how can we talk about media without mentioning President Donald Trump, who has been known to flail his arms and make silly faces on TV? Shouldn’t he submit to a little coaching? “He would never do it,” T.J. Walker, the veteran New York pro, said with a laugh. Why? “Because Trump is 100 percent convinced that he’s already the Number One Communicator in the world.” And he did, after all, win a pretty big election.

Watch T.J. Walker’s 9-minute video on how to look confident and relaxed when speaking in public at saturdayeveningpost.com/walker.

This article is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about America’s passion for collecting.