What does and doesn’t work on video?

Hands up anyone who expected not just to spend 2020 at home, but to spend much of it on video too. Many of us will have shunned the Lidless Eye of the PC camera before but are now unable to resist its power, as both work and social events are forced online.

The shift to video hasn’t just been meetings and virtual pubs, though. It’s also been a very busy time for online conferences, presentations and other events, as many organisations and companies attempt to catch up on cancelled ‘real’ events. And that makes it a great opportunity to see what does and doesn’t work in this format.

So what does and doesn’t work in camera-space – in video virtuality? The first thing, quite simply, is camera training – or at least, practice. Watching virtual events hosted by a wide range of different companies, it’s striking that in most cases the speaker who comes over most naturally is the CEO. And what will CEOs have had that most other execs will not have had? Media and interview training, including appearing on camera.

The second thing, which kind of follows on from the first, is how you present yourself. The other noticeable difference in recent virtual events has been that – at last! – not everyone has been sat woodenly in front of a desk, looking fixedly into the camera. It turns out that if you want to look a lot less like a rabbit caught in headlights, there is one simple thing that can help: stand up.

Acting natural isn’t all that natural

Why does all this matter? Quite simply because giving a presentation or talk on video is different – whether that’s from giving a presentation in person, taking part in an interview on camera, or joining an online meeting or group chat on Zoom or Skype.

To start with, in person you are aware of your audience and you can address them directly. Similarly, if you’re in a recording studio for a webcast or doing a face-to-face TV interview, you will have an interviewer or moderator, and you talk to them, not to the camera.

And while in a video meeting you can’t use visual cues such as turning to face a specific person, it’s relatively easy to act naturally. (Unfortunately, it’s also easy to forget you’re on camera and do things that you’d rather not have shared, from picking your nose to – yes, really – going to the bathroom.)

Acting naturally is a lot harder though when it’s just you on camera, at home and on your own. That’s partly because we tend to associate certain activities or behaviours with certain environments or people – this is also why some of us find it harder to be “at work with colleagues” in a location that’s normally “at home with family”.

Change your setting to change your behaviour

So if you want to change how you appear, first change your behaviour. Don’t sit at your desk, staring fixedly at the camera – stand up, get a colleague to ‘interview’ you, whatever works for you. Also, either do it live or record it as close to live as you can – and unless you are both good actors, it’s probably best not to stage ‘interruptions’, like the exec who had his young daughter barge in to ask cute questions about one of the products he was announcing.

And second, change the physical setting too – even if it’s as simple as hanging up a sheet for a neutral backdrop. Especially if, like a certain major cloud company last week, you’re trying to re-create the effect of a two-hander, where a pair of presenters swap to and fro to keep the audience engaged. While this can work really well on-stage, it loses impact when you’re in your dining room or spare bedroom, and your colleague is quite clearly in their kitchen.

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