Video presentations and pitches are hugely useful tools nowadays. From investor approaches to CSF start-up contests to crowdfunding campaigns, if you are trying to make something happen, you’re probably going to need, at some point, to talk it up on-camera. But performing on screen can be a very scary prospect, and if you’re not used to talking on camera, it can be really easy to freeze up and undermine the great idea you have to get across. But movie stars make it look easy, don’t they? Well, there are some simple tips we can learn from film and TV performers about how to be more comfortable, assured and engaging on camera.
First off, there are 2 styles of video presentation:
“Interview” style – This is where you look just off-camera in response to interview questions (or “as if” you are). This is a relaxed style, from news and documentary formats, that sets you up as an expert (someone worth interviewing) – it’s particularly great as part of a larger, up-beat video that talks up your company and your big ideas.
For this, the key is to make sure to have your “interviewer” placed next to the camera, as close to it as possible. If they are almost touching the cameraperson, that’s about right. Make sure they have the same “eye-line” as you – that is, if you are sitting, they should be sitting; if you are standing, they should be standing, so your eyes are at the same horizontal level. If you can, focus on looking at their eye closest to the camera – that’s an old Michael Caine trick to engage more with the camera (and avoid looking cross-eyed!) Try to make sure your “interviewer” is someone you enjoy chatting with – someone who makes you laugh, who supports your ideas, who has got your back. If you can get your best pal or a sibling or your mentor, great (and those are probably better than your co-founder, as talking to them will ensure you don’t over-jargon your talk with insider language). There’s a reason why people like Robert de Niro and Martin Scorsese, John Wayne and John Ford, Bill Murray and Wes Anderson, have formed such long-running work relationships – especially on camera, it really comes across when the person on the other side of the lens is someone you trust, have short-hand with and makes you feel good. And even if you are not going to show them in the video, have your interviewer actually ask the questions that prompt your answers – it always makes your responses much more organic, conversational and genuine.
“To-Camera” style – This is the more direct and personal version where you talk directly to the camera. This is a confident style, demanding your audience’s attention, that suits dynamic pitches and e-seminars.
The key to this is to know who you are talking to. You need to look into the camera lens – but not talk to a machine or a wide audience, but rather to a specific person. Carry on an intimate conversation, like a chat with a pal over coffee. Who needs to hear what you’re proposing? Who can gain from it? Who is someone you love who could benefit from it? Then imagine you are talking to them when talking to the camera. If it’s helpful, put a photo of them above the camera, or invite them along to stand behind the camera. This will ensure your delivery is bright and lively, rather than flat and distant.
It’s especially important when we “break the fourth wall” like this, to bring your charm and sense of fun to this. It’s a little silly, talking directly into a camera lens, so have fun with it. Be loose and not too stiff about it. For inspiration, watch some great movie examples like
and then bring your own sense of mischief, enthusiasm and conversational style to it.
The True Smile
I see so many videos with a glum-looking, deeply serious, gray-faced founder talking about his or her incredible business, that they’ve put blood, sweat and dreams into, but who sound like they are on their way to the gallows.
It’s a killer straightaway. Imagine a talk-show host who opened their show grim-faced and serious – even newsreaders end their serious broadcasts with a smiley goodbye.
I know you may want to appear legitimate and a serious person to do business with. But I’m not asking you to be wacky or frivolous. Just save your seriousness for a specific section where it makes sense – such as talking about the problem you are solving and how it effects people negatively and/or talking hard numbers.
But especially for opening and hooking people in, show your passion, your excitement, your delight – nobody is forcing you to do this! That brightness, warmth, keenness is infectious. And it even brightens your tone of voice, the physical act of your mouth being in a smile, making it more attractive to the ear – it’s something any voice-over artist knows, especially those recording TV and radio ads.
And I’m not asking you to fake a smile. Film actors that have a scene with someone they love, especially those spine-tingling close-ups, need to find something they love in the other person, or imagine it – it means they smile not just in their face, but in the sparkle in their eyes, because it comes from their heart. It’s easier for you – this is already something you love and care about!
So don’t fake a smile – but look inside and find the reasons why you are genuinely excited and happy to make a potentially great change in the world. That’s ultimately why you are presenting your idea. Enthusiasm is infectious – so please, smile!
Know your material backwards
Especially for video, you need to be really relaxed and organic with your material. And the only way to get there is rehearsal, rehearsal and oh, yes … rehearsal. And like movie actors, you need to do this part of the work as homework on your own. Anthony Hopkins says he reads the script a hundred times. Michael Fassbender says his #1 technique is to continually re-read the screenplay loads of times, each time finding something new in it. No film actor would turn up on set not “off-book.” Time is money on expensive film sets and crews don’t have much patience for an actor who is stumbling and plainly underprepared. And as any actor knows, the better you know the script, the more room there is to play. To relax, to have fun, to bring nuance, to carry depth, to have presence – that unmistakable light of intrigue about you.
So know your script backwards – rehearse it as much as you can, until you never have to pause or “um” searching for your next line. It’s helpful to rehearse it as many different ways as you can – practice it in the shower, on your jog, in your head while on your commute, in a walk in the park, while doing the dishes (put headphones on and everyone will think you’re on a call!). Know the structure inside-out – try doing the opening a bunch of contrasting ways, then your key points, then your close; for example, try it quiet and too loud, too slow and too fast, bored and overly enthusiastic. And rehearse it silly ways just to get it out of your head – do it in an accent you find fun, deliver it to your dog, do it while dancing to a funky tune. After all this, doing it straight will suddenly feel easy!
Practice being on-camera
The final part of rehearsing should be on-camera. Set up your camera or phone on a tripod and tape yourself having a few practice runs. If you can get a 2nd person to run camera so you don’t to worry about hitting record and refinding your place, all the better, and if you can practice in the actual environment you’ll be shooting the final product in, brilliant. But even just taking your phone and “selfie” taping yourself doing your presentation can be useful. Then watch it back.
Now the first time we see ourselves performing on camera, we all get a shock – but once you’ve seen yourself 2 or 3 times, you get over that. You get over how your hair or your chin or your ears look, and all that ego stuff, and you start to watch your delivery. See if there’s anything you are doing that feels too much or too little. What is coming across? I found when I first worked on-camera, I was much more expressive than I needed to be – raised eyebrows, scrunched eyes, hunched shoulders (usually a waste of energy that releases when we relax). See are you moving too much? Do you have unconscious habits like licking lips or playing with your hair or saying “like”? Do you look glum despite thinking you were being enthusiastic?
Then try it again, with that “note” in mind, and see if you improve when you watch the next take.
This will all build your confidence, and make being on-camera a natural place to be instead of an alien one.
It’s not being a diva, it’s being a pro – learn what works for you and request it
The more you get used to working on-camera, the more you will know about what works for you and makes you feel comfortable. So don’t be afraid to ask for it.
From watching yourself on screen, you may find little things about your appearance that are useful for feeling more confident. Do you tend to have a shiny forehead on screen? Good. Try powdering your forehead with make-up and see does it look better on-camera. Do you find you have a better side, that your face looks better pointing one way? Good, then know that and ask to be placed that side of the camera when you shoot. Does that blue shirt really make your eyes pop while that red polo-shirt just makes your cheeks look pink? Good. Plan to wear the blue shirt on the day.
Technically, particularly, if your final version is not being shot by a pro, get used to the basics of lighting, sound and set dressing.
Lighting: Ensure there’s plenty of light facing you (not behind you). Natural light (a big sunny window) is best, but putting a soft lamp with a paper shade just to the side of the camera to put extra light on your face, especially if it’s more shadowy than the other side, and give you a little “key-light” (a sparkle in your eyes) can always help.
Sound: The microphones on cameras are not great for picking up the sound of their subjects unless they are right beside it, so if you can, get a “lav” (a lavaliere microphone that you pin to your lapel) and use it with a sound recorder or connected to the camera: that will lead to a more professional quality sound. (As anyone who has worked on a low-budget film knows, the first thing that undermines a video is echoey, distorted or distant sound).
Set dressing: Make sure your background isn’t cluttered with distractions like a cluttered messy office, a lurid poster that draws the eyes or people moving around behind you. It can be a blank wall (grey or cream are good, and are what are used by top-level casting directors to film auditions) but it can definitely be an inspiring background, like your cool desk, a dignified bookcase or an attractive workplace (e.g. a kitchen for a food start-up) as long as it is neat, has no major items that draw attention and is not in deep focus in the camera.
Short cuts – let editing be your friend
Remember you don’t need a single perfect performance of the whole thing on the day. Because you can edit together a whole afterwards, you can do it in small segments, check your notes off-camera in between each point or get feedback from your director or colleague, and do multiple takes of each segment. And everyone works differently in terms of how many takes they need – some actors always do best on their first takes, whereas others need a few takes to get in the groove before hitting their best work. Find what works for you.
Don’t stop if you make a mistake or mumble a word. Keep going in your flow. You can always come back and fix that on the next take, but don’t waste a whole take. In fact, don’t stop until someone else says “cut.” And never apologize on camera – it’s a waste of energy.
But if you feel like you didn’t do yourself justice, do ask for another take. That’s not being a diva – that’s being a pro. It may not turn out to be better, but it’s good to trust your instinct, and the next day is too late for another take. (But maybe not the 47 takes Marilyn needed to say “It’s me, Sugar” in Some Like It Hot!)
Treat yourself like a star – it will pay off
How do our heroic movie stars look so great on screen? More than anything, because they take good care of themselves. For example, Liam Neeson switches to a high-protein diet in the weeks before filming. That’s why production companies lay on private cars to pick up stars in the morning and drive them to set, why they have trailers with the star’s favourite food and somewhere to nap, why they are sent to go relax while the crew is lighting and a stand-in takes their place. So when it comes time to shoot, there is no excuse for them not to be in as good a shape as possible to do the work.
So for your video presentation, treat yourself like a star. As Julia Cameron, writer of The Artist’s Way, notes, treating yourself like a precious object will make you strong. Some ways to do that include:
- Pick out the clothes you will wear at least 3 days beforehand (in case they need a press or a dry clean) and choose items that make you feel confident (but do avoid distracting patterns, clinging or low-cut tops, and rattling jewellery – plain colours, well-cut are best). Imagine you are going on a date.
- Make your last practice run at the latest the afternoon of the day before. Then switch off, trust the work you’ve done and decompress. Treat yourself the evening before – maybe watching an old movie you love on the couch with a bowl of popcorn.
- But if you can, steer clear of booze, caffeine and sugar the night before. Items like herbal tea, hummus and carrots are better snacks that evening!
- Get plenty of sleep the night before. Give yourself 7-9 hours sleep opportunity.
- Drink lots of water the day before and the morning of.
- Play some music that puts you in a going-out mood. Maybe on headphones on your way to the event, or over speakers at the venue before starting. You might want to create your “feeling like a star” playlist to have ready.
- If you are heading to a studio, treat yourself to a taxi rather than chasing the bus.
This will leave you feeling fresh, relaxed, buzzing and special – exactly what you need to enjoy the experience, perform well and shine on camera, rather than looking like a witness at a crime scene!
The key to being a star – the more you can relax in a trying circumstance like taping. So give yourself the best chance to deliver when you’re on screen – and treat yourself like a movie star.