I encourage my clients NOT to “read-talk” on video wherever possible.
However, I appreciate that there may be times when this is unavoidable. For example, you may need to make an official statement or you want to ensure that your words are not misconstrued in any way for legal reasons. Perhaps you are referring to an instructional manual and you want to make sure that what you say is succinct and correct for your viewer to follow along too.
Avoid the Read-talk-Snore
There is nothing more snooze-worthy than forcing a viewer to endure watching and listening to someone read-talking at them. Often made worse when the message is delivered in a monotonous tone.
In everyday life, most people tend to disengage from this type of “read-at-you” communication style (poor lectures anyone?), so you cannot expect your viewer to wait around let alone hear you out.
The Video format is for (moving image) i.e. showing not telling your viewer. This is why reading on-screen can be a self-involved action, it offers very little visual engagement nor is it interesting to watch.
How long can you “watch” someone read? However, if you are reading “for them” (which includes good vocal storytelling skill) and not “at them” (a crucial distinction) you’ll have a good shot at keeping them engaged with you and your message.
If reading on video is something that can’t be avoided or you have limited opportunity to edit the video and don’t want to use B-roll, here are my recommendations for how to effectively read your content on video, and more importantly how to sound natural while doing it.
(Note: I cover this topic extensively in my forthcoming book “How to Present on Video”. Make sure you get on my early notification book release list).
Let them see you Read – Don’t Pretend that you Aren’t
In my coaching experience, I’ve seen this so many times and it can be a huge visual distraction. Many people try to pretend they aren’t reading off-camera (looking off camera at a script). This upstages the presenter and can negatively impact the effectiveness of how the message lands with your viewer.
You also run the risk of making an inauthentic “first impression” or that you seem disconnected from your content. It shows that you haven’t taken the time to learn and deliver your message with the flow expected of someone who is regarded as an expert on the topic.
If you keep breaking eye contact with the camera lens, you’ll appear distracted and disengaged with your message.
The remedy? Position upfront that you are going to read or refer to your notes. Don’t pretend that you aren’t doing this. Not only does the act of reading break eye contact with the camera lens (your viewers), constantly looking down can make you seem unsure of yourself. Or worse, you can appear shifty if you are reading something off to the side, and your eyes are darting back and forth off-camera.
Most importantly, if you keep breaking eye contact with the camera lens without letting your viewers know upfront that you will be referring to notes, you’ll appear distracted and disengaged with your message.
Write and Script in Soundbites
Wherever possible, write your notes using short soundbites exactly as you would speak. Ideally, you want your written dialogue to be comprised of a series of short sentences, using simple words with few syllables. You would also incorporate writing contractions that are common in normal conversation, e.g. it’s better to use “don’t”, rather than “do not”.
Reading on video can make you sound stilted, unnatural, and monotonous, for several reasons;
- You aren’t expressing your own thoughts and feelings behind the words (what I term thoughtlessly speaking)
- Mindlessly reading words without underscoring the text in a meaningful way – i.e. you have not formed a personal connection to the material.
Finding that connection is the key and the way into a great on-camera read. How you establish that is through;
- Understanding what you are reading and the intent behind it – so that your viewer understands you and,
- Rehearsing your content out loud so that your mouth is familiar with the feel of the words, and your ears are familiar with the sound of them prior to filming. This will also reduce speech flubs (and lost time having to reshoot, extra takes, etc).
You want to be able to read the text in a lively way, that is smooth and clear where the words roll easily off the tongue.
Avoid Reading Long Sentences
Remember a video is for showing, not telling.
Without the use of visual edits, reading long passages on camera is not visually interesting for your viewer. Reading long sentences chews up a lot of screen time, and it can significantly slow the pace of your video down, making it a challenge for your viewers to remain engaged.
This is why TV news producers/directors will typically use several different cameras and angles to keep it visually interesting and dynamic when a professional news presenter is reading.
Keep Your Notes Visible
For a standard “talking head” video, hold your notes up as demonstrated by the central figure in the image. You want the notes visible in the shot while you are reading from them, but not directly in front of you, where they can create a barrier between you and the lens (your audience).
Ideally, keep them between your waist and shoulder. When reading from your notes, remember to make it obvious that you are referring to them so as to avoid any “shifty” glances at something that is off-screen.
If using paper, keep your notes still to avoid creating any rustling sounds and movements, which can be highly distracting on-screen and upstage your message. Better yet, use cards or a digital screen instead of paper. If using a digital screen, make sure the font is large enough so that you don’t squint or strain to read the text. Squinting brings tension to the face. It’s a similar facial expression to frowning, a negative emotion that can be off-putting to your viewers at a subconscious level.
If you Can’t see the Lens – You Lose the Ability to Persuade
Make sure your eyes can still see the camera lens in your peripheral vision when you are reading. If your eyes can’t see the lens, your viewers won’t be able to see your eyes. This creates a psychological barrier between you and your viewer.
The viewer must be able to see your eyes for the majority of the time that you appear on-screen. Doing so will help you stay connected with your viewer (the lens) and you won’t get lost (self-absorbed) inside your message as you read. Zoning out from your viewer is a big no-no for your onscreen charisma and persuasiveness.
Keep your notes up high, within the frame at all times, and avoid having them bob in and out of the frame (a visual distraction). Keep your material still and visible.
Those Cheating Eyes and Nodding Dogs
When you keep your eyes up and visible to the camera lens it will feel unnatural, but on camera, it will look good. In the craft of screen work, this is called “cheating”. We “cheat” our eyes toward the camera. Trained Actors and TV presenters won’t lower their heads (tuck the chin down) while they read onscreen (as we would in daily life) because;
- They know how important “face time” is on camera and
- It creates an unflattering neck, jaw and chin line onscreen and
- Keeping their face and eye-line up towards the lens is how they keep the connection with the viewer.
Rather than lower their heads, they will keep their faces up, but slightly lower their eyes to read. The rule of thumb is to make sure the camera can see the whites of your eyes at all times and that your eye dip is no longer than 3 seconds.
In the image above, Presenter 1 and Presenter 2 (on the right) are examples of common presenting mistakes when reading on video. The main presenter on the left is demonstrating the correct approach.
Let’s Break it Down
Presenter 1 (top right)
The presenter’s eye-line, facial positioning, and angle of her chin are directed down. This positioning limits her facial expressions and limits her eye contact with the camera lens (the viewer). If she were to look up to engage the lens, the constant head movement of looking up and down will resemble that of one of those nodding dog toys you see in the rear windows of cars. This movement can be highly distracting on screen.
The presenter has also created a partial barrier between her and the audience by holding the device directly in front of her. It might be easy and comfortable and it may serve as a protective mechanism (the equivalent to using a lectern), but for the viewer, it creates a visual and psychological barrier. Instead, take a fearless stance and angle your device out and away from the body to expose your belly.
Presenter 2 (bottom right)
This image of the presenter holding the paper notes is similar to Presenter 1 but is more extreme. She has created a barrier between her and the audience by blocking most of her body from view. This posture can come across as being defensive or emotionally guarded.
Her extreme downward gaze has made her notes seem more important than the viewer, reducing her ability to keep the connection with the lens. This can imbue the shot with a dismissive or self-absorbed vibe, further reducing the presenter’s effectiveness. Like Presenter 1, her eye contact is limited, and she will likely exhibit the nodding head effect.
Main Presenter (left)
This is the way I encourage my clients to refer to notes. She has kept her body position open and she has her body and face positioned toward the camera while referring to her device. Her face and eyes are “cheated” slightly up and towards the camera while reading to keep the connection with her viewer. We can see the whites of her eyes, and when she has finished reading, it only requires minimal head movement (or even just a glance) for her to directly address the camera again.
As a technical side note actors will often “cheat” their faces toward the camera when they are filmed from the side, especially when two people are filmed talking to each other in profile. I first encountered this as an actor in soap operas.
Use Eye Contact to Create Impact
When reading from your notes, if you have a key point in your message that you want to emphasize, look up from your notes and address the camera directly. Doing so will add more impact to this part of your message and by directing your eye contact, it visually prompts your viewer to take notice.
Your Preparation Process
When rehearsing or rewriting your notes, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my objective?
- Who am I speaking or reading to?
- What is my point of view? (e.g. Do you want to explain? Teach? Convince?)
- What emotion do I want to convey?
- How do you want your viewer to feel?
Even if you are reading from something as mundane as a product instruction manual, think about the emotional tone of your delivery. This will help to overcome the tendency to speak in a monotone when reading.
How do you want your Viewer to Feel, React, or Respond to you?
Keep in mind how you want your viewer to feel, react, or respond. Are there any “Aha” moments or key takeaways you want them to remember? For example, you could highlight these via your eye-contact, alter your body position i.e. lean in, change up your rhythm, emotional intensity, or adjust your delivery volume or pacing.
Think of the ways you can breathe life and energy into the words i.e. visual images, symbols, textures, actions, movement, ideas, or meanings behind the words.
Your message doesn’t have to be delivered like a dramatic Shakespearean reading, just make sure your conviction and purpose come through strongly. The keyword here is enthusiasm. If you aren’t feeling it your audience won’t be feeling it or you either.
Anything else will come off as vague, weak, and possibly boring to your viewer.
Don’t Have Time to Prepare? Use my “Lock-on” Technique
If you are reading paper notes, fold down your paper margins. Try to eliminate as much white space as you can, by making the piece of paper as small as possible without cutting off the text. That way your eyes won’t have to work so hard at locating the text on the page.
You can also use words and how they appear on the page as a visual guide to keep your place when you look up to address the camera lens. Simply search ahead to a word in the text, lock on to it, and note its position on the page with your thumb before lifting your eyes to speak.
My “lock on technique” will help you return to the exact place on the page when you want to continue reading.
If reading written text is going to be a common occurrence in your video presentations, practice these techniques until they become natural for you.
Continual Practice = Confidence
Once you have confidence, your self-confidence will grow.
Practice reading aloud on a daily basis. Experiment with over-exaggerating the words. Experiment with your pitch, volume, and pace.
Find a reading style that is lively and engaging without sounding contrived or “put on”. If you have a voice like a late-night radio DJ that’s great, but if not, don’t try to pretend that you do. You don’t want to come across as being hammy and contrived. Nor do you want to have to keep putting your “fake voice” on wherever your viewers see or meet with you in the flesh.
Use your own natural voice, but do your best through regular practice to make the best use of your vocal range and emotional tone.
Let me know if you have a burning question or if you want to request a topic for me to cover? I’m always listening!
If you need some extra care and guidance in this area – book me now. See below for details.
Founder of STEBIAN.com ★ Video Presentation Coaching and Production★ Established in 2006 Bianca provides an exclusive, personalized 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. Her clients want to master the screen and command the lens, in a compelling way and in any filming situation. With Bianca, you’ll 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, influence, and screen confidence with compelling video presentations. Find out more today.
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