30 October 2020

Video with vim and vigour

GILES RAFFERTY, Corporate Communications and Media Advisor


The camera never lies! A broad statement that still holds true despite the incredible advances in software to manipulate digital imagery. The cameras built into smartphones and laptops are amazingly sophisticated but are no guarantee that a video presentation will look good or be engaging. If you don’t believe me just think back over a few of the virtual video sessions we have all been enjoying as part of the COVID-19 inspired ‘new normal’.

The truth of it is a camera dispassionately and without bias captures the reflected light from whatever is in front of it, be that a box of bananas or the CEO of a company. Sure, there are smart phone filters that can cleverly superimpose animal features onto video of a human face, but I wouldn’t recommend that as a presentation option for your next virtual investor roadshow. You could also opt for the warts and all authenticity of a cinéma vérité approach to video, but that may distract from your message as viewers wonder why you look so scruffy, so crumpled and why it is that they are getting a fabulous view up both your nostrils!

We don’t need to be as accomplished at presenting to a camera as Tony Jones or Leigh Sales to be an effective communicator via smart phone or webcam. Nevertheless, there are a few basic rules that, if followed, will make sure we can be seen, heard and communicate effectively.

It all starts with thinking about your location. Ideally, you are looking to remove visual and audible distractions. If your audience is wondering how you came to be in possession of the 16th century Mycenaean funerary mask hanging on the wall behind you then they are not focussing on the message you are delivering. So when thinking about your location make sure the background is clean and uncluttered with no curiosities that could distract the audience.

It is the same for extraneous noise. If your audience is awestruck by the extraordinary vocal range of your pet pooch as it wails for attention then they will not be giving their full attention to what you are saying. So pick a location where you can limit extraneous noise. Somewhere away from road or street noise, where you can close all doors and windows and where Fido is out of earshot.

Lighting is also critical. Unless you are an anonymous informant, being silhouetted is a bad look, as is having intense sunlight masking your features in a blinding white light. The trick is create a diffuse, soft light. So turn on all the room lights and any lamps you have. It is preferable to close the blinds or curtains on the windows to remove distractions for you and to prevent variations in the daylight, possibly from clouds passing before the sun, ruining your video. Above all else, make sure there is not a strong source of light directly behind you creating the silhouette effect, or directly above you casting deep shadows down your face.

Once you have locked down your location it is time to think about your performance. Here again the clever tech in your device will not transform you into a professional newsreader or TV presenter and nor should you wish it to. The thing you do best is being you and the thing you know best is what you do every day, your work. So the first step is to trust yourself and choose to be you in front of the camera. The second is to stand up when you are doing a virtual video presentation. It will immediately put you into presentation mode; it will open up your chest and diaphragm and help you to speak with greater authority. Also, feel free to use body language and gesticulation. Much of communication is nonverbal so don’t shut it down just because you are recording a video.

Standing up is an easy presentation win but if you don’t also elevate the camera you are presenting to, it can lead to a common video presentation fail – leaving your audience staring up your nostrils.

Even worse than making people stare into your nasal cavity, having the camera below eye level can make it appear you are talking down to your audience while, by contrast, having it above eye level can make it appear you are pleading with them. So stand up and raise the camera so it is at your eye level. Once the camera is at eye level make a point of looking directly at it. Looking into the camera is a proxy for looking directly at your audience and will help to connect them to you and your content.

Now let’s think about appearance. The need to work from home may mean there have been days when you have not needed to get out of your UGG boots and dressing gown but that is not an acceptable way to present. So make the effort to be properly groomed and dressed, from head to toe. It is likely all the audience will see is your head and shoulders but by making the effort to be presentable, you will put yourself in a presenting frame of mind. Being presentable also sends a visual cue to your audience that you have invested time and effort preparing to address them, indicating that both they and the content of the video matter.

A presenter’s perception of the quality of their delivery is very often the greatest cause of anxiety around working in video. The fear that a pause or stumble will be captured for posterity and ruin a video presentation can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you focus on errors, the more they will distract you when they happen, making it more likely you will make another error. The truth is ‘ems’, ‘ehs’ and the odd stumble will humanise and ground your performance. The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has made an art form of appearing to lose his train of thought and has parlayed that into becoming a windswept and interesting global super star. It is okay and normal to make the odd minor mistake, in truth it is okay to make several of them and if they do happen, be like Billy, dismiss them and move on.

There can be a temptation to use a teleprompt to make sure a presenter is word perfect. However, a teleprompt is not a panacea for all your presenting woes. There is an art to its effective use and when used poorly it can do more harm than good. The biggest risk with a teleprompt is that a presenter reads_the_text_on_the_prompt_like_an_uninspiring_automaton. When this happens, the audience is left with no sense of whether the presenter actually believes or is invested in what they are saying and they switch off. It is even possible for the presenter to bore himself or herself and also start to switch off, stumble and really feel inadequate because they failed to deliver, even with the help of the teleprompt. Of course, if there are were to be significant legal or commercial consequences from getting it wrong being an accurate automaton beats jail time!

A middle ground can be to internalise the thought line of your presentation through rehearsals and use a teleprompt to do exactly what its name suggests – prompt you. Rather than putting the full script of a presentation on a prompter, condense the script down to bullet points you can use to stay on track. The assumption underpinning the bullet point approach is you would not have been asked to present on a subject unless you had some knowledge to share, so trust yourself to deliver and use the teleprompt to keep you on track. This approach can allow a presenter to speak authentically, with conviction without missing any key messages.

With or without COVID-19, video content is an ever-increasing part of the communication mix. Its ubiquity across daily life makes it feel like it should be easy to do. If that were true, there would be no need for First Advisers to offer presentation training as a service within our Media and Corporate Communications practice. As with all skills the old adage of practice makes perfect applies, but while developing those skills I prefer to go with progress not perfection.

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