Putting Yourself in the Picture

How to move from the office to the airwaves

Neil Bernstein
Magazine Issue
July/August 2009
Putting Yourself in the Picture

Q: I keep hearing therapists on the radio or seeing them on television and wondering how they managed to get there. Do you have tips on how to break into the media?

A: We’ve all seen and heard therapists do their stuff on the air. Some of us look down our noses at these smooth, glib personalities. How can they even dare to call themselves therapists? And others envy them for their public recognition, well-tuned media skills, and popular influence. But love them or hate them, they’re an integral part of the media landscape these days.

If you’re a sober, intellectually oriented, soft-spoken therapist, you probably aren’t cut out for television. In fact, the media operates by principles different from those typically found in our consulting rooms. The quiet, thoughtful, contemplative therapist must become much more spontaneous and animated to come across on radio or television. Statements that begin with “It’s possible that . . .” or “It’s hard to say without more information, but . . .” don’t cut it. To succeed on air, you need to be fast, dynamic, straightforward, opinionated, and funny.

My first media appearance came about 20 years ago. A publicity person had seen me do a conference presentation and asked if I was interested in being in the media. About a month later, a producer from the Sally Jessy Raphael Show, who’d gotten my name from the publicist, called to ask if I’d be willing to appear on a show about single men who’ve never married—a topic I’d given a few presentations on. The producer asked if I could round up some seasoned bachelors to appear with me. The ability to locate guests who are willing to speak about their own lives in this way is often what determines whether the show is interested in having you appear. I found it wasn’t hard to get takers. Like me, the bachelors I contacted were titillated by the thought of appearing on national television. They agreed to be the guests, while I’d be the expert on the subject.

In spite of my initial excitement, I was so anxious you could fry an egg on my forehead when I found myself sitting backstage waiting to appear in a few minutes. When Sally herself came by to say hello before my segment, she picked up on my anxiety right away. “You know, if you feel nervous about all of this, it’ll probably serve you well,” she said in a comforting tone. “Usually, when guests are wired, it comes across as high energy, and that’s a good thing on TV. So don’t try to fight it.” Easy for her to say, I thought, but hearing that calmed my nerves a bit.

The segment came off well, and I was initiated into the world of television. When I watched the show afterward, I realized Sally had been right on target: being wired by nervous anticipation can make for good television. This wasn’t a lesson I’d learned doing therapy, I assure you.

So if you do get the chance to go public, be prepared to psych yourself up for it. Focus on the excitement and energized feelings that propelled you into the situation. You might think of something you feel strongly about and imagine trying to convince others of your position. Be ready with a story or personal experience that interests, informs, and entertains others—and relate it with passion. Personally, I used to scream, “Go, go, go!” when I was in the shower or getting dressed before an appearance. It released a lot of my nervous energy, and actually helped me to loosen up. Remember, you’re shooting for that special mix of high energy and relaxed composure that carries well over the airwaves.

The cardinal rule of getting on TV or radio is to get to the point about whatever you’re saying. Producers and news writers are looking for someone who can speak in soundbites (pithy pieces of information), and hold their listeners’ attention. One plus for therapists interested in trying out their media skills is that producers are always searching for interesting ideas or psychological slants on news stories. They’re in the market for fresh new personalities who are experts in particular areas (e.g. children, couples, families, or particular disorders), but are equally articulate about other issues.

There are two ways to get on the air: you can either make the news or comment on it. Authoring an interesting book or article, working with a dramatic or visible case, or advocating a controversial position on an issue can quickly broaden your exposure. Television producers in particular look for drama, conflict, and sexy stories that’ll capture the public’s imagination. Once you’ve established yourself as an expert in a particular area, they tend to call on you for comments on related stories.


How do you get their attention in the first place? You can send out a press release briefly describing your work, your idea, and your availability—which should be at a moment’s notice, if needed. Include a link to your website so they can learn more about you if they’re interested. Think short and sweet here. Four or five sentences will do.


Producers typically get hundreds of e-mails a day, and only respond to the few that seem catchy.

Alternatively, you can blog on contemporary issues or news items and hope that your post will be picked up by one of the news services (Google, for example). You’ll need to be patient and persistent because of the huge volume of commentaries out there. And if you’re truly determined to go public, consider hiring a publicist. They know how to spread your good name around (provided you have something unique to offer) and can get you bookings—for a fee, of course.

Once you’re on the air, forget cautious neutrality. Take a stance on an issue, and speak with conviction. Think brief and catchy, and include colorful details that people will remember. If you have an anecdote to illustrate your point, by all means share it. And have no more than two or three points on the tip of your tongue, so you can avoid getting bogged down in minutia. As with politicians, viewers are likelier to remember the way you affected them—your personal impact—than the information you presented, so you should keep your message simple.

If your segment is being taped, there’s some room for error and even excessive elaboration every now and then. The producers are likely to edit out anything you say that isn’t directly relevant or sufficiently catchy anyway. It’s not unusual to be interviewed for 15 or 20 minutes and only have a sentence or two used, particularly if it’s on the news. Live TV or radio is another story: you only get one chance, and you have to make it count. So crank it up, get right to the point, and speak with conviction and lots of energy!

Appearing on television or radio can promote your practice, sell your books, and lead to further speaking engagements. But don’t count on making money doing this unless you’re hired by a network to be a regular. However, if you want to broaden your horizons and have some fun in the process, setting out on the media trail is a great idea.

Neil Bernstein, Ph.D., has made more than 300 appearances on radio and TV shows, including on Sally Jessy Raphael, Donahue, Oprah, Charlie Rose, Today, ABC World News, and 20/20. He writes the parenting column for His most recent book is There When He Needs You: How to Be an Available, Involved, and Emotionally Connected Father to Your Son. Contact: