Television: Know Your Background (Thanksgiving Edition)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 21, 2012 – 6:02 AM

What will show up behind you when you appear on television?

That decision is usually left up to television producers when interviews are held at their studios—but you may have significant control over your background for interviews conducted in the field, at your home, or at your office.

A thoughtfully selected background can enhance and reinforce your words, while a carelessly selected one can thoroughly undermine your message.

Politicians are among the most image-conscious, often conducting interviews and delivering speeches in front of a row of flags, banners bearing a campaign slogan (“For a Brighter Future,” “Lower Taxes”), or iconic landmarks.

Nonpoliticians should apply the same degree of thought by choosing backgrounds that reinforce their spoken messages.

Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.

Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.

Case Study: Sarah Palin’s Bloody Thanksgiving

After losing her bid for the vice presidency in 2008, Sarah Palin returned to Alaska to continue serving her term as governor.

As one of her ceremonial duties that November, she visited a local farm to pardon a turkey for Thanksgiving.

But when she gave a lighthearted interview to a local television station, she failed to check her background. Behind her, a man covered in blood was slaughtering turkeys by placing them into a killing cone.

The media loved the gruesome video—some of which was too graphic to show on television—and played the clip for days. The coverage reinforced the media’s narrative (fairly or not) of a politician unprepared for the national limelight.

Editor’s note: I’m taking a long weekend to celebrate Thanksgiving. I wish you and yours a great holiday, and will see you back here on Monday morning!

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Comments (4)

  1. By Daphne Gray-Grant:

    Thanks for a great post, today. It’s made me think about MY background when I work as a writing coach. (NOT what you’re talking about, I know, but you got me thinking!)

    Anyway, I usually use Skype for my coaching and the video camera on my computer faces a (covered) window behind me. I must look like the most boring person in the world! Definitely not the image I want to convey. A flag won’t work for me, but I’m thinking maybe I’ll get a nice piece of art to put behind me. Thanks for raising this issue that’s all too easy to overlook.

  2. By Brad Phillips:


    Thanks very much for your comment. I’m glad my post made you think about backgrounds for your Skype coaching calls!

    You may not want anything quite this “market-ey,” but I use a background with my blog’s logo on it for most Skype interviews. You can see the background at this video link:

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading.


  3. By Diana:

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog, but as a writer and farmer who is engaged in media mostly for agriculture, I can’t help but leave a note of correction. The turkeys in the background of Ms. Palin’s interview are not being placed into a “grinder”. What you see is a killing cone. The cone itself does nothing but restrain the bird in an inverted position. There are no mechanical or moving parts and certainly nothing sharp. The head sticks out the bottom of the cone and when you see the man reaching down below that cone inside the trough below he is severing the main arteries that run through the neck manually with a knife. Poultry are naturally lulled when placed into an inverted position and the severing of the main arteries results in a quick death and a clean, high-quality carcass. The movement you see in that second bird and sounds you hear is not a grinder, rather it’s the final firing of the nerves after death which produces twitching and movement throughout most of the bird’s extremities. This is where the old saying, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” comes from. It is uncontrolled movement that naturally happens shortly post-mortem in most species. The reason he stands there with the bird in the cone for a few moments after severing the arteries and the movement has stopped is to allow the remainder of the bird’s blood to drain into the catchment trough below. Blood retained in the body will reduce the meat quality, becoming clotted within the muscles themselves. Allowing it to be fully drained before turning the carcass back upright ensures a good quality product.

    Thanks again for your wonderful media training content!

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Diana,

    First, thank you very much for your nice words and for reading the blog.

    Second, thank you for correcting my story. I’ve changed the word “grinder” to “killing cone” in the original post. I really appreciate someone with your specific expertise keeping me on the right track! My goal is to always be accurate — and when I get something wrong, I’m fortunate to have smart readers like you who point it out.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Best wishes,

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