A reader writes:
As per my post on Autocue, I encourage my clients NOT to “line read” on camera 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 may want to ensure that your words are not misconstrued in any way for legal reasons. Or you may be referring to an instructional manual and want to make sure that what you say is exactly right.
Here are my recommendations for how to effectively read your content on video if reading on video is something that cannot be avoided. (Note: I cover this topic extensively in my fourth coming book “How to Present on Video”. Make sure you get on my early notification book release list).
Let them see that you are reading. Don’t pretend
If you keep breaking eye contact with the camera lens, you’ll appear distracted and disengaged with your message.
Position upfront that you are going to read from your notes. Don’t pretend that you aren’t doing this. Oddly enough, I do see many people try to pretend they are not reading and it can be highly distracting to viewers. 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 look really 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 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 can make you sound stilted, unnatural and monotonous, so make sure you have thoroughly rehearsed your content prior to delivery. You want to be able to read the text smoothly and clearly, without any speech flubs.
Avoid reading long sentences
Video is for showing, not telling. Reading long passages on camera is not visually interesting for your viewer. Not only will reading long sentences chew up a lot of screen time, it can significantly slow the pace of your video down, making it challenging for your viewers to remain engaged.
Even 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 above. 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 completely 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, and it is a similar facial expression to frowning, – a negative emotion that can be off-putting to your viewers at a subconscious level.
Make sure that your eyes can still see the camera lens in your peripheral vision when you are reading. If your eyes can’t see the lens, you inadvertently create 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.
Keep your notes up high, within the frame at all times. Avoid having your notes bob in and out of the frame, keep them still and visible.
Cheating eyes and nodding dogs
Keeping your eyes up and visible to the camera lens when reading will feel unnatural, but on camera, it will look good. In the craft of screen acting, this is called “cheating”. We “cheat” our eyes toward the camera. Top actors and TV presenters will not lower their heads when they are reading (like we do in real life) because they know how important “face time” is on screen and how it keeps a 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 still see the whites of your eyes at all times.
In the image above, Presenter 1 (on the left) and Presenter 3 (on the right) are examples of common presenting mistakes when reading content on video. Let’s break it down a little…
Presenter 1 (top right)
The presenters 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 camera, 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 very 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 comfortable or even a protective mechanism for the presenter, but for the viewer, it creates a psychological barrier.
Presenter 2 (bottom right)
This image of the presenter holding the paper notes is similar to Presenter 1, but more extreme. Presenter 3 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, thus reducing her ability to engage with the audience. This can imbue the shot with a dismissive attitude, further reducing the presenter’s effectiveness, influence and screen presence. Like Presenter 1, her eye contact is limited, and she will likely exhibit the nodding head effect.
This is the way I encourage my clients to refer to notes. Presenter 2 has kept her body position open and she is facing the camera while referring to her device. Her face and eyes are “cheated” slightly up and towards the camera while reading, so as to keep engaged with her audience as much as possible. 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. Picture this scenario. The camera was at the 12 o’clock position, and I was standing side-on to the camera facing my co-star who was standing at the 3 o’clock position. The director asked me to “cheat my eyes toward the camera lens” and not to look directly into the other actor’s eyes while I was delivering my lines to them. This went against my natural human instinct to make a genuine connection with the person I am speaking to. I remember thinking, “This feels so fake”. I played the whole scene looking at my co-star’s right eye as I kept my head turned subtly to the left toward the camera lens. It sure feels weird talking to someone while looking off to the side of their face, but technically it looks much better on screen, and more importantly, it makes for a better viewing experience when the audience can still see most of your face and expressions.
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 it visually prompts your viewer to take notice.
When rehearsing or rewriting your notes, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my objective?
- What is my point of view? (e.g. Are you trying to explain? Teach? Convince?)
- What emotion do I want to convey?
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. Keep in mind how you want your viewer to feel, react or respond to what they are hearing. Are there any “Aha” moments or key takeaways you want them to remember? Think of the ways you can breathe life and energy into the words. Your message doesn’t have to be delivered like a dramatic Shakespearean reading, just make sure that your conviction and purpose comes through strongly.
Anything else will come off as vague, weak and possibly boring to your viewer.
What if you don’t have time to prepare?
If you are reading off 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 before lifting your eyes to speak. Using this “lock on technique” will help you return to the exact place on the page when you want to continue reading.
If reading written text will be a common occurrence in your video presentations, practice these sight reading techniques until they become natural for you.
Continual practice = confidence
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. Use your own natural voice, but do your best through regular practice to make the best use of your vocal range and emotional tone.
These are just some examples of the tips and techniques that I share in my forthcoming book “How to Present on Video”. If you like what you have read, then jump on my early notification book launch list here.