Since the dawn of television in the 1950s many have harboured a secret dream to become a television presenter, soaking up audience approval in the soft glow of the limelight. Even more so in our modern world of multitudinous TV and online channels, in a very real way anyone can be a presenter!
The debate has now become; what constitutes a great television presenter? With tips as varied as it is wide ranging* aspiring TV stars have a plethora of advice to sift through.
In this episode we explore the art of Television Presenting and Interviewing with ITV and Strictly Come Dancing Star, Alison Hammond.
Alison is well known for her friendly and bubbly presenting style on the TV show ‘This Morning’, disarming her A-list guests with charm and a winning smile.
The list of her celebrity encounters stretches into the hundreds; with George Clooney, Will Smith and Hugh Jackman being just a few to experience her trademark interview technique.
After one of her regular voice-over recording sessions at Slinky, I sat down with Alison to find out just how she does it!
SL: Thanks for joining me today Alison, I’m going to start with the basics – what makes a great TV presenter? What qualities do you need to be really successful at it?
AH: That’s a great question, for me I love the likes of Ant and Dec, I think there’s a real great quality in the interactions between them. But if you’d seen them in the show they started out on [Byker Grove] I would never have put those two people together.
So it comes down to the chemistry that you’ve got, and if you’re truthful to yourself, no matter what happens the truth will come out. I think you’ve got to be truthful. And true to yourself.
SL: Is it about being yourself?
AH: It is about being yourself, but you’ve also got to step out of it because you are entertaining people. You’ve got to step out of it and think ‘Would I find this interesting?’ ‘What would people want to know about it?’ That’s how I approach it, I think: ‘If I was watching this at home, what would I want to know, what questions would I want to ask?’.
SL: Without naming anyone, I’m guessing you have to appear to be interested in something even if you aren’t?
AH: You don’t have to! I personally am interested in most of the subjects that I cover, very rarely am I not interested.
And if I’m not interested I’ll just be honest and say ‘I don’t understand why this may be interesting to someone!’. I think honesty and integrity is the best way to go forward with any form of interviewing really.
SL: You’re known for your quick wit, so thinking on your feet is important. Looking at your pieces to camera with ITV, you’re very good at reacting and improvising if something goes wrong.
AH: I just tell the truth, if something has gone wrong, I tell people that it’s gone wrong. Most of the time it works out for me, I think if you try and cover something up and pretend it didn’t happen then you look a bit stupid.
SL: And people like the fact that you’re being personable about it.
AH: If you stammer over your words, that happens in real life, so that’s ok. Be honest, I always make a thing of it, if I trip over I don’t pretend that it didn’t happen.
I always acknowledge it and carry on doing what I’m doing. Honesty is always the best policy.
Alison Hammond raps with Will Smith
SL: On the subject of interviewing world class celebrities – of which you’ve done many, how do you get the best of a grumpy Hollywood A-lister? You know they don’t want to be there, what are your tips and tricks?
AH: Be prepared, make sure you know about that person. The way I do it, my tips are, before we even start the interview when I walk into the room, I like to pick something – maybe one of their hobbies.
For example, Keanu Reeves really likes biking, he loves going out on his bike, so before we started I asked, hows your biking, have you been out recently? And then they want to talk about that, and you have a little chat. So you’ve got that time, while the sound man is putting on his mic, you have a rapport before you’ve even started the interview.
SL: A little bit of a warm up?
AH: That’s right, a warm up. You see how they are, how they’re feeling. It’s a great way before they start the interview for them to see that you know a little bit about them and that you’ve researched them a little bit.
I love interviewing A-list celebrities because everyone thinks ‘Oh what are they like?’ and the truth is, they’re people like you and me, who just want to be normal.
SL: A great interview is all about prep, as you mentioned, what kind of prep do you do before an interview, obviously you have a production team that do some research and you do your own. What do you need in place to do a good interview?
AH: I’m really lucky in the sense that I’ve got a great team in place around me. Because I’ve got a lot of interviews and I am quite busy, they do prep a lot of interviews for me. They give me a background of that person, but the main thing I would say is, if they’re a film star promoting a film, I make sure that I’ve gone to see the film.
That’s really important, because you can end up looking silly, going into the interview, not having seen the film. Or music, if it’s a musician, I want to know exactly what we’re talking about, you’re fully armed. Maybe I’ll do a little history of the person as well, and put some questions down, but don’t feel that you’ve got to stick to your questions.
They might go off on a tangent and your interview might go somewhere else. Make sure that you’re listening as well, you’ve got to listen to the person talking to you. If you don’t listen and they know that you’re not listening then they switch off.
“If you don’t listen and
they know that you’re
not listening then
they switch off”
Alison Hammond interviews stars from Fifty Shades Darker
SL: I can see, because I have notes in front of me, my next question is about having notes. How do you have your notes ready for your next question, but still need to be listening?
AH: That was one of the early mistakes I made to be honest. I used to write my questions out and I’d really want to get one question right, or someone at ‘This Morning’ said ‘Make sure you get that question, Alison’ and I’d be so worried about getting the question out that when they were talking and opening up about something like their family, I’d still be worried about getting my questions in. So maybe write down some questions, but deliberately keep them loose.
SL: And you’re looking for those open doors, so if someone asks you something you should take that opportunity, even if it’s not written down?
AH: Yeah, for instance a lot of celebrities don’t talk about their families and their personal lives so if there is any moment where they do talk about their personal life, then that’s a little gem to find out about them, to see what they get up and what family life is like at home. If they do open up, the best thing is to go with it and see where it goes.
SL: So what is your opinion on notes, do you use them?
AH: I do use notes, always honesty, my notes are always there on screen. I always have ‘This Morning’ on the card, but I don’t write them out as questions any more. I do bullet points, to stop me from staring at my notes, I want to be engaged.
Questions are great, but for me I like bullet words – that will set me off onto something so I would always have bullet words. So I can look down for literally one second, see that word and I know exactly where we’re going with the next question.
SL: You’re also an actress, are there similarities in terms of presentation, are there transferable skills? What are the similarities for you?
AH: Well I was in the Central Television Workshop from the age of 11 to 18 and we did a lot of script work. We did a lot of learning lines, for me personally that was one of the things that was brilliant for me.
I can pick up lines really quickly, I can look at a paragraph and learn it and repeat it, do a piece to camera. If I was giving someone some advice, who is just starting out I would say to them, find a paragraph in the newspaper.
Look at it for five minutes and try and say it back. For instance, I have short term memory so I can learn something really quickly, but if you come back to me later in the day I’ll have forgotten it.
Comic Relief Sketch
Alison interviews Hugh Jackman about new film Logan
SL: You’ve done screen acting but also a lot of pantomime, which involved learning a lot more lines for longer.
AH: That’s a lot harder. That takes me a lot longer to learn, I can’t retain for very long. For panto, I have to go over things again and again, it’s purely repetition.
SL: Obviously on screen, you’ve got your takes and your breaks.
AH: Yeah, if I do more than two takes to learn something I start getting frustrated and upset.
SL: You’ve also got your new radio show on Radio WM. Is that a little less pressure without cameras in your face, or does it not matter to you?
AH: It’s great, because I can rock up at 8 in the morning, with no make up or in my pyjamas if I want to. I just drive to the Mailbox, drive in, park up, go up in the life and I’m there. It’s brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed doing radio for that very reason!
SL: Do you have any tips for directors working with presenters? What do you want from a director or a production team to make your life easier?
AH: Mainly we want direction. You want someone with a clear insight on what they want. I have some directors who come in with a storyboard which is fantastic.
You can look at the cartoon, see what they want, be on their level. It’s when people come in and they don’t know what they want, so you’re directing yourself as a presenter! You want someone who comes in, they’re not scared of you and they can direct you on what you need to do. Having a clear vision and being able to explain that clearly.
“My top tips would be; be yourself, know who you are as a person”
SL: What are your tips for aspiring presenters? You’re great with social media, boosting your profile – is that a top tip?
AH: People are so lucky these days, you don’t need to get into the doors of these big TV stations anymore. You have the technology now to create your own TV, you don’t need anyone – you can create your own YouTube channel and you can be doing what you love. Have a subject matter, if you really love make up – then focus on make up. If you’re interested in celebrities have a YouTube channel focusing on celebrities. Whatever you want to do, get out there and do it, because there’s nothing stopping us now. You know how the media and social media is, if you’re good the big boys take notice.
SL: The cream rises to the top. Any final tips for aspiring presenters?
AH: My top tips would be; be yourself, know who you are as a person. Once you know who you are you can do anything. There is nothing you can’t do. Know what your boundaries are and what you’re interested in. Know where you will and won’t go. Start presenting – start getting out there and make your own videos, if you’ve got a friend who can film you. Make those videos and get them out where people can see them. You never know someone might notice them, who knows.
SL: Thanks for your time Alison – you’ve been brilliant.