In our modern society, when people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner as our early human ancestors did
Rabbit in the Headlights On-Screen
In our modern society, when people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner our early human ancestors did. The threat response happens at a subconscious level, driven by the limbic system, the primitive part of our brains.
Presenting on video is not as threatening as being confronted by a lion, but our brains still use subtle modifications of these primitive responses to respond to lower-level threats.
In my work with clients, I see firsthand how people new to video presenting exhibit some or all of the “Freeze > Flight > Fight” responses. These responses can be subtle, like a default low-level hum, below their level of conscious awareness.
Unfortunately, these threat responses become amplified on-screen and detract from the presenter’s ability to appear confident and persuasive.
Being in front of the lens can be stressful. The camera doesn’t blink, look away, smile, or express any human qualities. We generally do not experience this level of intense scrutiny in real life, so our body’s response is to release stress hormones – triggering our freeze, flight, or fight.
Often this can impact how we breathe.
1. The Gasp for Air
When people are thrown into the spotlight or aren’t used to being put on the spot, a clear physiological sign of the Freeze > Flight > Fight response is a disruption in their natural breathing cycle.
They breathe from high up in the chest, rather than deep breathing from their diaphragm. As a result, their speaking trails off or loses power at the end of their sentences or statements. They have literally run out of air. The result onscreen is a gasp for air after each point is made aka the gulping fish.
The body feels threatened when in a shallow breathing state. This affects our hormones, our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It escalates as growing tension in the body, the eyes, face, vocals, jaw, and tongue. A person in this state may not even be aware of their tense mannerisms – but, it’ll be highly visible on-screen.
Have you experienced something similar?
If you have, try out my in-house go-to technique.
- Throughout the day, pay attention to anything that triggers fear, anxiety, and anger. Common signs are dropping into “storytelling” i.e. should/shouldn’t, right/wrong, resistance, procrastination, blaming, complaining, criticizing, or avoidance behaviors like binge-watching, shopping, eating, etc.
- Drop the storyline (your opinions about what is happening), and begin with the following:
- Stop. Pausing physically brings you back to the present moment
- Breathe. Inhale for 2 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat 4 times
- This creates space in the mind so that you become less emotionally reactive
- It gives your pre-frontal brain time to regain control over your emotional state
- Watch. What your mind and body are doing
- Notice what the mind does, the kind of thoughts that rise up, the tone of your internal self-talk
- Notice how the body feels, where is the tension felt in the body? In the temples, face, jaw, tongue, throat, chest, shoulders, stomach?
- What are your limbs doing?
- How are you breathing?
The point of this exercise is to not beat yourself up or make yourself wrong. Doing so is a form of subtle self-aggression. Rather, it’s a practice in self-awareness, without having any form of judgment or opinion about it.
If you regularly train with this technique you’ll develop more mental discipline. You create space between consciously choosing your response, unconsciously reacting with a freeze, flight, or fight sensations.
2. How we Trip – We Think Faster than we Speak
Your speech will never catch up to the speed of your thoughts. If your thought processes are fast, and if you don’t take the time to pause, it’s highly likely that you’ll trip over your speech, or sound breathy due to an elevated breathing rate.
In this instance, you want to apply the same technique above but instead of watching what your mind does (and its habitual patterns), you instead want to Stop. Breathe. Think. Slow down, and focus on what you are saying.
My scuba diving instructor taught me this survival rule. It can mean the difference between life and death when you are underwater. The rule is designed to stop you from panicking, and it’s a good rule to remember when you are being interviewed as well.
- Inhale deeply through the nose, pause, collect your thoughts
- On the exhale mentally vocalize the sound “Ahhh” before you respond.
This mini pause with the silent vocalization will give you time to synch your thoughts with your speech. If you can exhale with a smile even better. In some research studies, smiling can release feel-good-messengers that help fight stress, relax the body, lower heart rate, and blood pressure.  
3. Take Your Time
Make the audience (the camera) and interviewer wait for you.
Turn things around psychologically. You have something valuable to share with the viewers, so take your time sharing it.
- When you speak – slow your speech down enough for clear diction – don’t gabble or have your sentences run-on
- Sentence run-ons make it more challenging for the video production team to get clear audio and sound bites from you
- Structure what you want to say into clear succinct soundbites that are no more than 20 seconds long
Remember that the production team can always edit your interview to speed it up, slow it down, cutaway, etc. Don’t rush – set your own pace.
4. Stand if you can
Although it is not always possible, ask if you are able to stand, or walk and talk while being interviewed. Doing something physical burns off nervous energy, it also gives the body something to do. Standing tall keeps your energy levels up. You’ll also breathe better vs. slumping in a chair.
5. Learn to Perch
If the interview is filmed on location and you’ll be seated, ask for a chair with no back, or one with a straight back. Sitting straight keeps your energy levels up and your attention alert and focused. Plus you’ll breathe better.
Comfy chairs can encourage poor posture, slumping, and shallow breathing. It can also psychologically make you feel too relaxed. This encourages letting your guard down, which is not advisable unless it’s a flattering “puff piece” interview.
Insiders tip: Talk show hosts deploy the use of comfy chairs with their famous guests to get them to open up and share more.
Actionables: Practice the Perch
- Sit up straight or perch slightly forward towards the front of your seat
- Lean slightly forward. This will keep your physical connection open and outwardly directed towards the camera (your audience).
- Avoid turning away or closing your body towards the camera. This will make you seem defensive, energetically closed-down.
- Always play out towards the lens. If one of your eyes can not see the lens (in a single camera set-up) then your viewer will much of the intent of your message
- Keep your chest and shoulders level, elongate your mid-section, by lifting up out of your hips. Slumping into your hips can enhance a pot belly
- Where possible keep your hands visible or use these common cheating techniques for looking good on video.
6. Work off Your Interviewer’s Energy
Smile at the interviewer when you speak or answer their questions. Smiling helps to relax the tension in your face. Its also calms areas in the brain
When we are tense, frowning is more likely to occur. If you smile you will come across as being more likable to the audience. Smiling will also trigger the interviewer’s mirror neurons (providing it’s not a hardball interview) and they will mirror your smile back to you – which can have a reassuring, calming effect on you.
In some cases, you won’t get a response at all. Don’t let that throw you. Keep your energy up, and your face warm and open. Hold on to your intent and your objective.
7. Like a Professional Athlete: Warm-up
Prior to the interview, warm-up your expressive features and any other body part that will appear on-screen;
You will most likely be framed in a medium to close-up shot. This means that any visual discomfort i.e. perspiration, frowning, squinting, eyeballing, etc, or physical tension i.e. elevated shoulders, hunching, shortening of the neck, and head (a protective startle reflex) will be visible on-screen.
If you warm-up prior, you’ll keep all these areas tension-free.
8. Know in Advance
Know what type of questions you will be asked.
- Ensure you have your key talking points rehearsed and that they are easy to recall
- You want to be able to pick up anywhere in your material and not lose your train of thought
- If the interviewer takes you off-topic, find engaging ways to circle back to your key talking points
- Develop a message map, to help you bridge your responses back to your key talking points
- Ensure you have your key talking points rehearsed and that they are easy to recall
Ask beforehand what to wear i.e. colors/patterns etc and bring several wardrobe options if your interview is filmed on location.
9. Bonus tips!
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.
Established in 2006 Bianca Te Rito, founder of STEBIAN.com provides an exclusive, consulting service for business owners, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, speakers, best-selling authors, and VIPs to help them present themselves, their products, services, or brand message to their target audience in the most effective way possible on video. Get the tailored expertise from a real-world operator with over 20 years of TV/Film industry experience working in front of and behind the camera. Enhance your on-camera presence. Find out more today.
 Seaward BL. Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett; 2009:258
 R.D. (2000). Neural correlates of conscious emotional experience. In R.D. Lane & L. Nadel (Eds.), Cognitive neuroscience of emotion (pp. 345–370). New York: Oxford University Press.