Directing Direct Response Television

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Telling someone you are a director of direct response television is like saying you are an international chef who cooks with Spam. Many people assume that infomercials direct themselves, and anyone who can get a pitch person and a demonstration to stick to tape can produce a successful one.


In the 1980s, as infomercials were evolving into DRTV, it was easier to motivate a direct sale through television. Now, as production values increase, viewer sophistication grows. Direct response television requires a complete crew of creative professionals to develop an infomercial that sells product.


Many components combine to create a successful infomercial: a unique product; a dynamic product demonstration; a compelling offer that makes the phone ring; a believable spokesperson who loves the product and loves talking about it; before and after shots that portray the consumers' magical transformation through product use; and "real" people testimonials filled with factual material but also possessing an emotional center.


Power of Testimonials -- What's most important? Product comes first, then pitch person personality and skill. What's next? The show format? The budget? The script? Nope. The power of your testimonials.


Start with people who have an actual relationship with the product. If your product has been available for use by the public for a while, or if a substantial group of people has been test marketing your product, pick the people that best suit the demographics to which you hope to market your product and schedule a shoot.


This is difficult with a new product, but as soon as DRTV is seriously considered, create a test group that fits the product demographics and have that group start using the product. As a director, you can't dig for an emotional and declamatory testimonial if the true breadth of experience is not there.


Once a client provides you with a list of potential real people, take the "product attributes" list you've created and affirm that potentially these people can address the product's features and benefits in their testimonials. If the testimonial people are readily available, do an initial interview well in advance of the actual shooting.


Tape these interviews with a consumer camcorder and assess how they look on-camera and record the content of their initial testimonials. No director can "fix it in post production" if initially you don't get raw material with potential.


Don't make a big deal out of the trappings of television: lights, cables, cameras, the place crawling with crew. Downplay the entire environment. When I shoot a testimonial, I explain that we are shooting onto videotape and that no one will see anything that isn't well-done. I say that we are there to shoot in the absolutely least painful fashion, and we can just keep shooting until we are happy with the performances and content. This is not entirely true, because if you don't get something you can use in the first four or five takes, most people begin to lose energy and build frustration, but I still initially assure them that the number of takes doesn't matter.


Explain exactly what will happen and what is expected of these people before you begin shooting. Take the time to make them as comfortable as possible in an unfamiliar environment. Don't push them through like cattle. Time spent earlier with each person you interview can pay dividends later. This is the time for a director to be a coach, both in terms of a television acting coach and, to some extent, an athletic coach.


Use whatever works to relax and yet focus them. Make them real and yet enthusiastic and committed to the product. Build techniques that inspire immediate trust between you and your talent. This can be as simple as really listening to them when you ask a question or when they make a comment. Amid this environment of choreographed chaos that is television production, let them know how important they are to you.


No matter how well you cajole or cheerlead, however, some people will not work direct-to-camera. The perfect testimonial consists of the product user communicating directly and very personally to the viewer at home, looking directly into the camera lens. But the subject can also look just off-camera, a technique that is often preferred because it increases believability and emotional response.


Sit directly to the left or right of the camera lens and lean in to the person. Make solid eye contact and memorize the questions so you don't have to break the mood between the talent and yourself. During this process, communicate with the crew in a very low-key fashion. Don't yell commands for all to hear. Don't "count down." In a calm voice, simply say "roll tape," which is confirmed by a low-key "speed" by the camera operator. If this environment is still too unnerving for the testimonial subject, roll tape while the subject is unaware and just shoot him while he talks about the product.


If you are careful about how you use both types of testimonials, to-camera and off-camera, they can live together within the same infomercial. Mostly, you want sound bites - brief, emotionally moving and revealing how the product transformed the user's life. When you identify a subject who can speak in longer terms that are moving and well-structured, this person might have an actual story that you will want highlighted within your infomercial.


Consumer features based on how the product changed his life, highlighted with either photos he supplies or footage you shoot - at home, work or play - can be very important components in an infomercial. Many successful infomercials contain three or four longer features and are loaded with testimonial sound bites.


Testimonials grounded in fact and motivated by solid emotion can boost infomercial sales. Don't take the path of least resistance in regard to testimonials. If what you are shooting isn't making you want to "pick up a phone," keep working these people. If the initial group can't provide quality testimonials, you may have to suggest starting a whole new test group. This time, be involved from the start, interview the potential testimonial provider and select people who will play well on television. It would be less expensive to start over and create moving testimonials than to produce and air a testimonial-driven piece that has weak testimonials.


Remember, if your testimonials are running too slow and are uninspired, try increasing your energy as a listener. If the subject is babbling too quickly or incoherently, lean in and react to what is being said. The subject will slow down to allow for your reaction.


Despite all the technology involved in shooting today's infomercials, whether your testimonials work can come down to the human element: how well you connect as a person in conversation with your testimonial talent.

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