When people feel threatened, they still react in exactly the same manner as our early human ancestors did
Deer 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 low-level hum, below their level of conscious awareness.
Being in front of the lens can be stressful. The camera doesn’t blink, look away, break contact, smile, or express any human qualities as we would experience with in-person interactions. As a result, 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 Gulping Fish
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 rhythm.
They breathe shallowly from high up in the chest, rather than deep breathing from their diaphragm. As a result, their speaking voice can trail off or lose 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, 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. Your viewing audience will sense on an intuitive level that something seems off or untrustworthy about you.
If you have experienced sudden on-camera tension I encourage you to practice the following:
1-2-7 Recentering Breath Technique
- Breathe in for a count of 1
- Hold of a count of 2
- Follow the breath as you exhale for a count of 7
- Breathe in and respond.
2. Tripping Over the Tongue
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, between ideas it’s highly likely that you’ll trip over your speech, or sound breathy due to an elevated breathing rate or a rapid speech rate.
In this instance, you want to Stop. Breathe. Focus.
My scuba diving instructor taught me this vital survival protocol. It can mean the difference between life and death when you are 30ft plus underwater.
The rule is designed to stop you from panicking, and it’s a good practice to remember when you need to be calm, focused, and centered.
3 – 5 – 3 Energy Re-set Technique
- Breathe in for a count of 3
- Exhale and follow the breath for a count of 5
- Pause for a count of 3
- Breathe and respond
When you practice this mini-breath pause – it will give you time to synch your thoughts with your speech. And if you can exhale with a smile even better.
To release tension in the face and relaxed the throat muscles you can even include a silent vocalization like “Ahhh” or “Kaaa” as you exhale and smile.
Also in some research studies, smiling can release feel-good-messengers that help fight stress, relax the body, lower heart rate, and blood pressure.  
“How” you deliver your message is actually more important than the message itself.
3. The Voice
Ideally, having a speaking voice that is clear, pleasant, and compelling to listen to will serve your message and viewers well. Yes, we can look the part, utilize positive body language, and craft captivating speaking points only to undermine our message with a voice that lacks variation and depth, sounds thin and nasally, does not reflect energy, ownership, and enthusiasm, or is littered with negative aspects like audible pauses and speech fillers.
Although your viewer may agree with your message, you run the risk of them being turned off or distracted by how you say it.
Speaking with “authority” isn’t about putting on a voice or an act. It’s about genuinely understanding the subject material and, the audience. You need to be able to explain your key points in an expressive convincing way with enthusiasm.
- When you speak – slow your speech down enough for clear diction – don’t gabble or have your sentences run-on
- Sentence run-ons can make it more of a challenge for the production team to get clear audio and sound bites from you
- Reduce negative speaking fillers: “Um”, “Er” or “You know”
- Pregnant pauses can signal to your interviewer that you’ve finished a thought when indeed you haven’t and cause others to interrupt you
- Avoid trailing off in pitch and volume towards the end of a sentence – to avoid being interrupted or misunderstood
- Don’t curse or use slang language even during breaks or off-air moments
- During your speaking points, it’s important that you don’t rush your points and keep a cool, professional approach.
You have something valuable to share with the viewers, so take your time sharing it. Remember that the production team can always edit your interview to speed it up, slow it down, cutaway, etc. Don’t rush your message – set your own pace.
4. Craft your Soundbites
Live On-camera interviews can be all-telling. As a viewer, you can quickly tell which speaker owns their expertise. If you are careless with your words or the intent and delivery of your message, you run the risk of forming a negative first impression with the audience. The following may help for your next Live on-camera interview.
- Know the format of any show/interview that you’ll be appearing on
- Know well in advance what kind of questions will be asked, and if applicable, get as much information as you can i.e.
- How will your contribution be used and in what context?
- How will the issues, topics be presented?
- Who else is being interviewed or featured?
- What’s the audience demographic?
- Is it live or pre-recorded and edited?
- Brainstorm likely worst-case-scenario questions and your replies
- It’s best practice not to refer to notes during a live-on camera interview – you’ll come across as ill-prepared, and unprofessional
- No matter how short or long the interview, structure what you want to say into clear succinct soundbites that are no more than 30 seconds long
- With short soundbites or quick statement interviews, communicate your most important points within the first 30 seconds. Use any additional time to expand on your points
- Narrow your message to three key points, and have some closing soundbites at the ready
- Make sure that you have your key points well-rehearsed and easy to recall so that you can keep your train of thought, if rushed or under pressure
- 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 i.e. “Before I answer that, I’d like to get to…” or “This issue is important, and it’s why…”
- If the interview is not live and you mess up or aren’t happy with your reply, simply take a pause and restate your reply.
5. Camera Technicals: Eye-contact / Gestures / Mannerisms
With on-camera interviews or appearances, you’ll often appear in a medium to close frame.
This means your presenting style, gestures, and body movement will need to be smaller in scale and more contained in order to be effective, authoritative, and compelling onscreen.
With an in-person interview, you’ll likely focus your eye contact on the person asking you questions, not the camera. With this in mind practice these on-camera pointers where applicable.
- In-person studio interview – If both your eyes cannot “see” the camera lens, your face will appear to be obscured. Try to avoid this and cheat your face to camera as “naturally as possible”
- The more your eyes move about the more unsure of yourself you’ll appear onscreen. Shifty, darting eyes are highly distracting; they can give the impression of untrustworthiness, and make the audience uncomfortable – as though you’re trying to hide something
- Instead, keep your focus, hold eye contact with the person asking the questions and look into the interviewer’s eyes
- On-camera a powerful, steady eyeline speaks volumes about your trustworthiness
- If you need to look away for a moment direct your eyes down for a breath you’ll appear more thoughtful.
As discussed you’ll often be filmed from the waist up in a medium frame. This means that you’ll need to be mindful of how you use your hands and arms on-camera. Ensure that you don’t upstage your message or distract your viewer with superfluous movement.
- If you’re going to make hand gestures, keep your hands visible and out in front of you to be ready to gesture. Avoid bringing them in and out of the frame as this can be highly visually distracting
- Avoid gesturing with your hands at or above your chin; they’ll create a psychological barrier between you and your viewer and interfere with your eyeline
- Don’t gesture wider than your shoulders, the movement will be too over the top, too big for the frame, and look exaggerated onscreen
- Avoid gesturing lower than your mid-chest. The camera won’t see the gesture, but the viewer will sense something odd is going on below the screen
- Avoid locking or wringing your hands, knuckle-crunching, white-knuckling objects i.e. coffee cups, fidgeting with pens or fingers. These can all be highly distracting
- Keep your hands visible and avoid using your pockets – it looks like you’re hiding something.
- Be aware of your facial expressions. Avoid making odd faces, excessive lip licking, or darting your tongue around against your lips i.e a “concentration tongue” common with men. These traits will overwhelm your message.
6. 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 and gives the body something to do.
Standing tall keeps your energy levels up. You’ll also breathe better vs. slumping in a chair.
If standing, keep yourself and your feet grounded and still. Often nervous energy can make people do odd things onscreen i.e
- Bobbing, bouncing, or standing up on the balls of their feet
- Swaying and rocking and back and forth.
All of these will appear heightened and exaggerated on-screen, making you appear restless and anxious.
7. 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 upright keeps your energy levels up and your attention alert and focused. Plus you’ll breathe better.
Avoid chairs that swivel and rock. If you are nervous these chairs will highlight that fact, especially if you’re unable to sit still.
Comfy chairs can encourage poor posture, slumping, and shallow breathing. It can also psychologically make you feel too relaxed. This encourages you to let your guard down, which is not advisable unless it’s a flattering “puff piece” interview.
Insider’s 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 and lean forward slightly towards the front of your seat
- This will keep your physical connection open and outwardly directed towards the camera (your audience)
- It will also convey interest, eagerness, and willingness to listen, as well as engage the audience
- Avoid turning away or closing your body towards the camera
- This will make you seem defensive and energetically closed down
- Instead, focus your energy on the lens (the audience). Remember if one of your eyes can not see the lens (in a single camera set-up) then your viewer will lose much of the intent of your message
- Keep your chest and shoulders level, uneven shoulder height can make you appear irresolute, self-conscious, and unsure of yourself and your message. Instead elongate your mid-section, by lifting up out of your hips
- Slumping into your hips can enhance a pot belly
- Impact breathing
- Reduce your on-camera energy and presence
- Where possible keep your hands visible or use these common cheating techniques.
8. Look Alive. Your On-camera Energy. Avoid the Amateur Hour
The camera observes everything. Your posture, energy, your facial expressions, and mannerisms. It detects your every little unconscious or unspoken nuances, loudly on-screen. It’s why it’s an effective medium.
During an on-camera interview, it’s in your best interests to assume that the camera is always “LIVE”. Even when the interview has concluded and the host is wrapping things up. Never assume that the camera is off.
Stay on brand until you have disconnected or the producer has cleared you to leave the studio set and your mic is off.
This means that you need to keep your energy up and your eyes and face actively engaged. There’s nothing worse than seeing a compelling LIVE interview only to see the thought leader inadvertently flop back in their seat, sigh with relief, and quip about how they feel. Not realizing that they were still LIVE.
- Remain an active participant
- This includes your facial reactions. If the interview is edited, you’ll reactions give them a nice range of editing options to choose from instead of a blank staring face
- Listen and React while others speak
- The viewer doesn’t know what you (the listener) are thinking about the speaker until they see your reactions. This makes you more interesting to watch – providing you react. It’s also why “reaction shots” are edited into a scene in TV and Film to keep the viewer engaged in a scene
- Truthful reactions also make the speaker feel appreciated and heard
- Just be sure that your reactions are authentic and that you’re not merely pulling faces. If you are actively listening and engaged it will register well on-screen and with the viewer
- Avoid dropping off, or zoning out while others are speaking, you’ll come across as disengaged, disinterested, or indifferent onscreen, and it’ll detract from natural charisma.
We fall to the level of our preparation. Being prepared is the key to building self-confidence, and eliminating imposter syndrome.
9. Smile to Convey Confidence
Smile at the interviewer when you speak or answer their questions. Smiling helps to relax the tension in your face. It also calms areas in the brain releasing neuropeptides and feel-good neurotransmitters—dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin which relax your body and, lower the heart rate and blood pressure.
When we are tense, frowning is more likely to occur. If you genuinely smile, you will come across as being more likable to the audience.
Smiling may also trigger your 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.
However, 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.
- Be sure to really listen to the interviewer. Give them your full eye-contact and focus – this can reduce anxiety and any self-consciousness on your part. Avoid thinking about the viewing audience, just keep your focus on the person you are speaking with
- Avoid reacting to the energy level of your interviewer. Instead have a clear intent on how you want to show up, and the energy level you want to project
- Occasionally use your hosts name during the segment
- Prep for worst-case scenarios i.e.
- If you are attacked. Smile
- If you are criticized, smeared, or ridiculed. Smile and simply shake your head
- Don’t get angry
- Remember, you are the expert. Set the tone and pace and emotionally manage yourself in the situation. Be, personable and professional
- For clean audio, avoid overlapping (speaking over people)
- Don’t project your voice – just speak normally
- We fall to the level of our preparation. Being prepared is the key to building self-confidence. In dealing with imposter syndrome, remind yourself of your skills, achievements, talents, and strengths. You’ve been asked because of your thought leadership, and expertise. Share them
- Remember you are having an engaging conversation – not making a public speech.
10. 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;
As discussed you’ll 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.
11. Best Practice Takeaways
- Ask beforehand what to wear i.e. colors/patterns etc and bring several wardrobe options if your interview is filmed on location. Have several options on hand to avoid color clashes or matches with the interviewer
- If you are being interviewed by remote or third-party platforms, avoid looking at yourself or speaking to yourself in the preview finder. You’ll come across as self-absorbed with little interest in interacting or engaging with the interviewer. Not only that, it places a psychological barrier between you, the interviewer, and the audience
- In a studio style or in-person interview, avoid looking at the camera unless directed to do otherwise.
- There are Make-up “technicals” to be aware of. Some colors can come across as unflattering and odd-looking onscreen
- Avoid red lipstick, glosses, and glittery products as these can be highly distracting, and reflect against studio lighting
- Avoid touching or playing with your hair on-screen
- Find a style that keeps your hair where it needs to be during your interview
Clothing / Footwear
- Choose clothing colors and styles that are on-brand with your message
- If your message is serious or sober in nature wear darker colors and vice versa if your message is more informal, light, and fun
- Ensure what you wear does not upstage your message, including jewelry, earrings, clanging bracelets, etc
- If you want to appear more hands-on or hard-working with your message style choices like short or rolled-up shirt sleeves can visually signal this
- Most of all it’s important that you feel comfortable with what you are wearing, including your footwear if they’ll be seen on-camera
- Ensure that your footwear is clean, polished, and scuff-free including the soles. Ideally have a set of dress shoes or heels specifically for on-camera interviews
- For etiquette purposes never flash the soles of your shoes or position your foot i.e. across the knee where the soles of your shoes can be clearly seen by the audience (the lens).
12. The Day Before
- Avoid consuming dairy products or stimulants on the day of your shoot
- Get a good night’s sleep prior
- Be well hydrated – take your own water and avoid coffee
- Be well-groomed and styled and take your own cosmetics (just in case)
- Here are some other things to help you create a positive viewer experience.
This is a small subset of the type of initial high-level analysis I provide for my clients. There are a number of personalized recommendations that I am not able to share publicly. But hopefully, some of these coaching highlights will have helped you too.
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.
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.
 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.