What a cosmetic chemist can expect when put on television

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to be a guest expert on the Dr. Oz television show here in the US. It’s a nationally televised show and has a rather large audience, so it was a good opportunity to plug my book (Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm) and counteract some of the typical BS you see on TV. At least, the latter half was the plan. TV appearances are much more difficult than you can imagine. Here is what happened to me.

Getting on TV

The first time I was on TV related to my work as a cosmetic chemist was back in January. My publisher arranged to get me a spot on the Rachel Ray Show. Over the next couple months I made a number of TV appearances. You can see them here. I should back up and explain how I got a publisher.

A couple years ago, I started a beauty blog with other cosmetic chemists called The Beauty Brains. The concept was simple, real scientists answering your beauty questions. People would write in questions, and we would give science-based answers. It was a bit like Mythbusters for cosmetics. In fact, one of the original names for the blog was BeautyBusters. But after kicking around the idea a bit, we decided it could be a bigger idea because we could do more than just bust myths. So, instead we went with The Beauty Brains.

The blog gained some traction and we developed a pretty sizable audience. This prompted us to self publish a book called The Beauty Brains. It was simply a paper version of the best questions and answers from our blog. The sales were decent but we didn’t do much to get distribution and we were writers, not publishers. Then a book agent contacted us and we worked up a proposal to sell the book to a large publisher. After getting a number of offers, we settled on Harlequin to be our publisher. About a year later, our book was turned into a new book called, “Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm?” And the launch of the book prompted the television (and radio) appearances.

I should note that originally, The Beauty Brains was written anonymously. We didn’t think that we could be completely honest answering questions if we had to answer to the legal or regulatory departments of our company. I think this was a good move and if you are considering starting a blog, it’s something to think about. You don’t want to jeopardize your job for your opinions on the Internet.

Media training

So last year my publisher sent me to some “Media Training” which is designed to help you figure out what message you want to get across and how to do it. It was rather helpful and enlightening. The idea is that you are not supposed to answer questions, rather you are supposed to use every question asked as an opportunity to get out your message. Most people on TV or in the media have gone through similar training and it explains why politicians, athletes and actors never directly answer anything.

Of course, it’s difficult to train yourself not to answer questions when they are asked and I’ve never been very good at it.

First TV experience

As I said, my first experience was on the Rachel Ray show. Prior to the show, I was in communication with a producer and we worked out the details of what we would be talking about. Since plugging the book was a primary goal, we picked about 4 questions from the book to discuss. This is the point where you can have the most input on how the segment goes. After this, you start to lose control over what happens, especially on nationally syndicated shows.

Once we had the segment topics worked out, the TV people took it from there. They wrote up an outline and a script and got all the demos and samples together. The script wasn’t so detailed that I had lines to memorize, but there were phrases they wanted me to include for legal and other reasons. And I had my list of message points that I wanted to get on the air. There was definitely a lot of things bumping around in my brain. Combine this with new surroundings plus basic nervousness and it became really easy to get mixed up.

At the studio, I spent a little over an hour waiting in the green room with people from my publisher. The producer (who was extremely bubbly and energetic) came in and went over the script. We rehearsed once and she left. I had hair and makeup done and was backstage before I knew it.

In front of a studio audience

When they brought me out on stage, my nervousness multiplied. The crowd, the cameras, the lights, and the commotion was a bit overwhelming. I just kept re-running what I was going to say in my head. Then I relaxed. Rachel Ray was nice enough but she was all business.

Overall, I thought the segment went pretty well. I didn’t say things exactly as I would have liked and I’m sure I stumbled a bit, but overall, I was pleased. The most nerve racking moment was having to respond to the first question. They do this big lead-up to you, ask you a question and you’ve got to immediately give a entertaining but accurate response. It’s tough. This experience made me better empathize with people who say stupid things on TV. It’s so easy to get ideas jumbled in your head.

The aftermath

After the show, everyone told me how I did a great job. I wasn’t awful but don’t think I was nearly as good as they said. It was difficult for me to watch and it remains difficult for me to watch any appearance on TV. But my friends and family were thrilled for me and it was nice to hear all the compliments from them.

The other notable thing was that on the website where they posted a clip of the interview, the comments were brutal! I was called names, accused of being a shill for the chemical industry and basically told that I was an idiot for the things I said. That was even more difficult to read. My suggestion to you, don’t read comments about your appearance! It is pretty depressing. Fortunately, I had some of my scientists friends come in to defend me but it still makes me cringe knowing that is out there.

Media appearances

I think it is important for scientists to go on TV and radio and to talk with reporters who are writing stories. Just realize that you will feel pressure to say things more definitively than you want and they may even edit what you say to better fit the story they are trying to tell. But the fact that your words can be manipulated is not a good reason to skip doing it. Even if the appearance doesn’t come off exactly as you’d like, it will make people aware that there is science behind cosmetics and there are people in the industry who are not trying to trick you.

Overall, I think it is a positive thing to do. But there is a downside. The Dr. Oz show appearance illustrates this. I’ll cover that in a future post.

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