On-camera Skills vs Stage. How to Be Engaging and Genuine on Video

Here’s the thing you might be great on stage in front of an audience, but being able to speak to a live audience does not necessarily mean you will come across well on video and vice versa.

In my 20+ years of experience working in front of and behind the camera, people new to video presenting come across very differently on camera than they do in the flesh. This could be contributed to the Observer effect but either way, I’ve seen it occur at various stages of skill level.

Even confident speakers and presenters who are used to presenting on stage (or in front of a room) don’t realise that in order to be effective, engaging and compelling on-screen, they need to adapt their physical presentation style to suit the technical requirements and subtle nuances required by the video / screen medium.

Often I’ll see professional speakers, stage presenters eager to incorporate more thought-leadership videos into their marketing mix. Use old-school public speaking techniques on-screen. Their stage mannerisms upstage them every time on video.

Many are oblivious to the fact that their larger than life stage persona translates like an inauthentic caricature on-screen. Because they haven’t modified their approach for the subtleties of the screen. They often end up inadvertently reducing the effectiveness of their video message, their credibility, thought-leadership and authority.

“In this context; presenting on stage is like a Surgeon operating with a scalpel. Presenting on video is like a Surgeon operating with a laser.” 

Stage Presenting vs. Video Presenting

In some instances, I’ve seen stage presenters use similar techniques to theater actors.  Some speak in exaggerated tones. Some use big hand gestures, with lots of finger-pointing and arm waving. Some pause for dramatic effect and some exaggerate their facial expressions.

It’s the style of presenting and public speaking that you see with preachers, politicians, and motivational speakers. This style of presenting might be ideal for speaking to a live audience. But on video, where you are speaking-direct-to-camera it can come across as, unbelievable and contrived on-screen.

It’s like unknowingly tuning into a movie only to discover you’re watching B-grade acting in a B-grade film. Within the first few seconds, you instinctively know the film is going to be a poor investment in time. Something on-screen doesn’t gell or sit right with you. Your unconscious BS-detector has been triggered.

 If it doesn’t feel real – your audience will stop watching  

Adopt a Modified Approach

Presenting in an effective, compelling way on video requires a modified approach. It requires the presenter to “pull people in” (screen presence) whereas stage presenting requires the presenter to “push out to the audience.”

Think of it as being the difference between broadway theater style acting vs film acting. Theater actors need to project their voices loudly so the people at the back of the theater can hear. They use exaggerated facial expressions, and expansive body movements so everyone in the audience can see what they are trying to emotionally and physically convey.

None of this is required for the lens.

Therein lies the problem for many stage presenters.  Note: You’re not alone. This is also a common challenge for professional theater actors making the cross-over from stage to film and vice-versa for screen actors. Each needs to learn and unlearn or modify their performance to suit the medium.

“How” you deliver your message can be more important to the viewer than the message itself.

No Sensory Feedback

Remember that while humans have evolved as a species over the last two to three million years, spoken language is thought to be a relatively recent invention, only tens of thousands of years old.

As a result, we have evolved to be more proficient at communicating non-verbally. However, the camera does not provide the sensory feedback we have become accustomed to over generations of human evolution. This means that when we operate within the confines of the video frame our non-verbal communication can be either enhanced in a negative or positive way on-screen.

The camera is inanimate it doesn’t blink, smile, speak, gesture, or give you any encouraging signals. Rather, it observes and captures every little facial nuance, thought-process, and emotion. With an unblinking intensity that we don’t normally experience in our everyday dealings with other human beings.

Anyone can put themselves on video. But not everyone is watchable.
Being able to present effectively on video, has become a vital skill for the business leaders of tomorrow. 

We Mirror What We See 

At the time of writing research findings suggest that we tend to mirror or copy what we see (a human survival mechanism), attributed to firing mirror neurons in the brain.

The trouble with this is that untrained people who spend a considerable amount of time in front of the video lens, often begin to match what the inanimate camera is doing. Often their energy levels drop, and along with it their self-expression and natural animation.

The result is often either a tense, wooden, lacklustre delivery or the complete opposite an overcooked, forced screen presence. Needless to say, none of this makes for a warm, inviting, compelling screen presence let alone an engaging viewing experience.

The Body Revels Tells the Truth of the Moment

Without realizing it, your body language can undermine your screen presence and authority. For example, poor, slumped posture, turtle necking (stress startled position) and shallow breathing can make you and your message visually register as less trusting by your viewer.

Physical mannerisms like that involuntary elbow flare, each time the presenter speaks about pricing. Or that shifty, sporadic eye-movement and incongruent body language with mismatched messaging. Can all be visual red-flags that unconsciously provoke skepticism, and distrust with your intended viewer.


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Why Fake Won’t Work On-screen. Video is Intimate – Stage is not

Unfortunately, what works well on stage does not come across well on video, because the video camera sees things differently than the human eye.

Within the confines of the camera frame, everything on-screen appears magnified. When framed in a medium or close-up shot, if you incorporate big broad theatrical gestures, large body movements and exaggerated facial expressions, and loud speech into your video presentations. You’ll come across as “artificial” inauthentic and overcooked on video.

In film acting, industry-speak its called “over-acting” or “hamming it up” for the lens.

Faking any emotion, or expression on-camera will make your delivery unbelievable. It’s death to the credibility of your sales message. And you will lose your audience.

If you are filmed in a full-length shot, then you may be able to get away with some of these “old-school” techniques – but generally, you won’t – so don’t!

 Unfortunately, what works well on stage, does not translate well within the confines of the video frame  

The Camera Represents Your Viewer

Remember, the viewer of your video presentations is only an arm’s length away from you on their viewing device.  This is an intimate distance, and very different compared to if you were presenting to a live audience.

Under the scrutiny of the camera lens, your viewer can detect every little facial nuance, twitch, or eye glint. Their “BS” detectors will be more finely tuned.

 Remember, the viewer of your video presentation is only an arm’s length away from you on their viewing device 

The following tips should help you if you’re just starting out or if you are a seasoned pro who wants to make the cross over to video – and do it the best way.

Avoid the Old School Stage Presenter Effect

No need to shout at the lens

    • Being shouted at by someone in a video presentation can be downright unsettling. As in life, most people don’t like it and will tune you out or won’t stick around long enough to hear what you have to say.
      • Instead, speak as if your viewer is standing 4 feet away from you, and let the microphone do its job

Avoid the “one-note” with your emotional tone

    • This is where your entire video presentation is devoid of any emotional scale.
      • To be effective on-screen, you must make the audience see the images behind your words

Watch those Fingers

    • Most people don’t like having fingers pointed at them
      • It can make the viewer feel as though they’re being talked down too (i.e. parent/child roles)
      • It can be visually distracting and dilute the impact of your message
      • Its often associated with aggressive behavior and can escalate unconscious tension to the receiver of your message
      • Golden rule: If it doesn’t work in life, don’t do it on camera

Avoid big hand movements

    • They tend not to fit within the boundaries of the camera frame
      • It can be distracting to your viewer to have your hands appear out of nowhere on the screen
      • Keep them visible or out of the frame – make the choice
      • Use specific gestures to highlight a point. Avoid flapping your arms and hands about.
    • Sporadic movement within the camera frame will draw the eye and distract the viewer away from your message
      • On-camera movement or lack thereof visually underscores that something is important
      • As a result, your message will deflate like a balloon and lose its impact if there is too much sporadic movement on-screen
      • If you want to use hand gestures, learn how to cheat them correctly towards the lens and use movement strategically

Ditch long pauses

    • Long pauses slow the pace of your video down
    • Pauses work well with stage presenting because they draw people in. But they need to be used strategically on video
      • Often times video viewers want their information delivered in fast succinct chunks
      • Most viewers won’t have the patience to grant you the luxury of watching you search for your thoughts every few seconds
    • Speaking too slowly or in a labored way on video can feel like an eternity for the viewer (just like a slow loading website). In this fast-paced, attention-deficit world most viewers simply won’t stick around to hear you out

“Overactive Eyebrows” or exaggerated facial expressions

    • Can look and feel like a pantomime
      • Instead, you need to “draw the viewer in” and not overly indicate your emotions (this is an advanced screen technique. Contact me for coaching on this)
    • To command attention on-screen practice stillness (not to be confused with stiffness)
      • Stillness requires a level of quiet alertness, focus and present moment awareness

Red-Flag Your Energy Levels

When you are tired it’ll show on-screen.

Sometimes masked feelings like irritation, frustration can be contributed to low energy levels. Either way, they will negatively impact your screen presence as a result.

The key here is to stay consciously aware of your energy levels throughout your video filming sessions. And to make a note of your energy dips between takes.

Here are some red flags that you need to take a break:

Cognitive strain includes:

    • Find yourself feeling extremely drained after being on-camera
    • Are feeling frustrated, or irritated
    • Are blanking on words or ideas mid-sentence

Physical strain includes:

    • Sore, strained or irritated eyes
    • Repeatedly finding yourself tongue-tied
    • Are tripping up over words – speaking to fast or slow
    • Poor eye contact i.e. excessive blinking or boring holes at the lens

My golden rule: If you are not feeling it – your audience won’t be feeling it or you either. Faking it until you make it is a mistake for authentic on-camera communication

How to Be Engaging On-screen

    • Keep your energy levels up
    • See your viewer in your minds-eye and visualize having a conversation with them, one-on-one
    • Understand how the camera sees you and how to work with your expressive features on-camera. Manage your eye-contact well with the lens (your viewer)
    • Convey your emotions with subtle gestures and heartfelt facial expressions
      • Never, fake it on-screen. Your micro-expressions will give you away (within the confines of the frame) and your audience will sense that something is off
      • My golden rule: If you are not feeling it – your audience won’t be feeling it or more importantly you either. Faking it until you make it is a misnomer for authentic on-camera work

If you have a question or you what me to cover a topic for you let me know. I’m always listening! And, you can always book a time with me to get the tailored support and guidance you need on any of the performance areas covered in this post. See below for details or learn more about my services here.

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