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How to Be a Talk Show Host

A few simple steps to help launch your talk show career


THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0060 -- Pictured: Host Jimmy Fallon on May 16, 2014
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

So you think you've got the same chops as Jay Leno? Or maybe you fancy yourself a better Jimmy than either Kimmel or Fallon. Could be you just love Ellen so much you want to follow in her footsteps. But how do you become a talk show host? Is it something you can major in? Or is talk show host one of those careers that just happens by accident?

Truth is, it's more accident than anything else. But if you set your sights on someday become a professional gabber, there are some steps you can take to make that accident more likely to happen.

Start taking notes, gentle reader, because your talk show career starts in high school.

Concentrate on Communications
Today most high schools provide classes in what we used to call mass communications: television and radio. Nowadays mass communication can include digital channels like podcasting, video production, and much, much more.

A lot of schools have studios, too, which is your opportunity see how you like performing in front of a camera. Camera performance is much different than stage performance. Even people who do well in front of crowds can freeze up when the red light and reflective lens stares back at them.

Carry that production work into your college career and choose a degree that will help you get your start in broadcasting. Often that's journalism (David Letterman was weather forecaster and Oprah Winfrey was a news anchor, for example). But television production can work as well, especially if you focus on writing. Conan O'Brien got his start as a writer for Saturday Night Live. Producer Lorne Michaels choose him because of his comedy writing skills and his ability to perform well on camera - though that took a few years for O'Brien to lock down.

Already have a degree? And a career? But still want to be a host? Consider going back to broadcasting school to get the education you need to be on TV or radio.

Be a Hometown Hero
Let's be honest. A nationally syndicated talk show is not something you're going to fall into right out of college. You're going to need some real world experience before you get a national stage. So start locally.

The television business is broken up into a number of markets - small, medium and large. And all those markets have a need for original programming. Get an entry level job in a small market - where everyone is expected to do a number of jobs - and you might get a shot at being on camera. And if you have the passion, you might get lucky and pitch an idea for a local talk show that gets picked up by your station. Use that to build a resume - and a reputation - and carry that on to bigger markets.

Hone Your Skill
It takes a ton of talent to host a show almost every day for the better part of a year. You have to know how to interview guests, especially difficult guests. You have to have the flexibility to talk about myriad subjects. And you have to guide your show's rhythm so that viewers keep coming back for more - and bring other viewers with them. Find ways to flex your verbal and mental skills so you're ready when your time comes.

Consider Starting Your Own Show
In How To Start Your Own Talk Show, we discuss ways you can circumvent "honest" work to launch your own program. For example, many of today's aspiring talk show hosts can shoot a shoestring talk show on a $100 high-definition video camera and broadcast the show on YouTube or their own unique web page. There, the audience potential is enormous - millions of viewers across the globe. And if you don't want to build a set, consider launching a podcast. You can showcase your talk show chops just as easily in audio as you can on video.

Build Relationships
The most important thing to do, however, is build relationships with professionals who can help you move your career along. Every successful talk show host knew someone who saw their potential and were connected to the right people to help that person launch their show. Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz were both recognized by Oprah.

Finally, be persistent. If you want to be a talk show host, go for it. Always look for an opportunity to demonstrate your skill, show of your homespun show, pitch an idea to local television shows to get your career off the ground.

Then, when you become famous, let us know!

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