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Directing Direct Response Television

“Directing Direct Response Television” by Randall K. West.

Telling someone you are a Director of Direct Response Television is somewhat like telling someone you are an International Chef who cooks with Spam. Many people assume infomercials direct themselves, and anyone who can get a pitchperson and demonstration to stick to tape can produce a successful one. Not true, although in the 1980’s, as infomercials were evolving into Direct Response TV, 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 which portray the consumers’ magical transformation through product use, and “real” people testimonials filled with factual material but also possessing an emotional center.

What’s most important to creating a homerun infomercial? Product comes first, then pitchperson personality and skill. What’s next? The show format? The budget? The script? Nope! The power of your testimonials.

So how do you capture testimonial lightening in a bottle? 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 have been “test marketing” your product just 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 Direct Response television is seriously considered, create a test group that fits the product demographics and start them 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. If an infomercial is to be testimonial driven, you must do everything to assure that the testimonials are motivating.

The day you shoot the testimonials, don’t make a “big deal” out of the trappings of television. Lights, cable, cameras, the place crawling with crew. Down play the entire environment. I explain that we are shooting onto videotape and that no one will see anything that isn’t well done. We are all here to shoot this in the “absolutely least painful” fashion and we can just keep shooting until we are all happy with their performance and their content. This is not entirely true, because if you don’t get something you can use in the first 4 or 5 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 is going to happen and exactly what is expected of them before you begin to shoot. Take the time to make them as comfortable as possible in an unfamiliar environment. Don’t just push them through like cattle. Time spent with each individual person you interview can pay big 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 they make a comment. Amid this environment of choreographed chaos that is television production, let them know how important and special to you they are. Many times you feel as if you fall somewhere between a confidant and the person who tells them to go, “Give them one for the Gipper!”

No matter how well you cajole or “cheerlead” 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 substantially increases believability and emotional response. Sit directly to the left or right of the camera lens and “lean in” to the person. Make very 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”. Just, in a calm voice, say “roll tape” and that 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 them “talking” about the product.

If you are careful how you utilize both types of testimonials, “to-camera” and “off camera”, they can “live” together within the body of the same infomercial. For the most part, you are looking for sound bites. Brief, emotionally moving 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 want highlighted within your infomercial. Consumer “features” based upon how the product changed their life, highlighted with either photos they supply or footage you shoot, at home, work or play, can be a very important component in an infomercial. Many successful infomercials contain 3 or 4 longer “features” and are loaded with testimonial “sound bites”.

Testimonials grounded in fact and motivated by solid emotion can boost infomercial sales substantially. Don’t take a path of least resistance with 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 destined to create a sale, 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” on television. It would be less expensive to start over and create moving testimonials than to produce and air a testimonial driven infomercial that has weak or only average testimonials.

If your testimonials are running too slow and uninspired try increasing your energy as a listener. If the subject is babbling too quickly and incoherently “lean-in” and react to what is being said and they will slow down to allow for your reaction. So you see despite all of the technology involved in shooting today’s infomercials whether your testimonials work can come down to the human element. How well you connect with your talent.

Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director of Hawthorne Direct Inc. http://www.hawthornedirect.com/Default.htm

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