A Word from Our Announcer: On-Camera Speaking Tips

Whether you appear on-camera or direct those that do, the quickest way to communicate the secrets of on-screen success is by addressing them directly to you. Once you’ve internalized these professional tricks, it’ll be easier to pass them on to the talent you’re directing. So let’s pretend you’re Ms. or Mr. Announcer and start sharing the inside dope.

Natural and Confident

For the most natural delivery, don’t address the camera, even though you’re looking right at it. Instead, replace that hunk of hardware with an imaginary audience and talk directly to it. That will help you communicate an attitude appropriate to your target audience.

For example, if you’re a teacher presenting a lab experiment intended for high school juniors, create and hold a mental image of a typical class. But if you’re preparing a presentation that asks the school board for special funding, pretend you’re standing up at an actual board meeting. As you know, the attitudes you project toward real-life classes and governing boards are quite different. By seeing a target audience instead of a camera, you’ll automatically build the appropriate posture into the presentation.

To go a step further, try visualizing a single, particular individual: one actual student or board member. By creating the illusion that you are addressing a person, you can add a conversational feeling that’s tough to achieve when you’re talking to a lens.

We’ve covered actor problems like stage fright and general lack of confidence in Shaping Actor Performances (September 2002 issue), so here’s just the gist of it. First, remind yourself that you are not taping the show in public. You can use rehearsals, multiple takes and all the editor’s cunning tricks to perfect your performance and cut out any goofs. Keep repeating to yourself, "No one will see the bad stuff, no one will see the bad stuff…"

When working with other on-camera talent, make sure there’s ample rehearsal time. If they tend to stiffen up or blow lines, roll the camera on every rehearsal. You never know when they might get it right.

Always accentuate the positive by finding something to praise in each take, even if it’s only slightly less awful than the previous one: "You were more relaxed this time. Now let’s see if we can work on…"

Finally, remember that success breeds success. As soon as you get some good results from a performer, play them back on a reference monitor, pointing out the good things as they happen. This positive feedback is a great confidence builder.

Physical Presence

Confidence and relaxation are closely tied to physical comfort: ease in handling on-camera props, moving about and (most difficult) staying still.

To stay in one place and look natural, avoid standing alone in the middle of a set or location. If you’re supposed to be upright, get a standing establishing shot; then, for closeups, sneak in a high stool to sit on. But remember that sitting and standing body languages are different, so perch on your stool with your back straight and your weight aligned with your spine to simulate a standing position.

If you must stand for your presentation, try to arrange a prop (easel, desk, chair back) to create the psychologically reassuring feeling that you are at some specific place, rather than just sort of out there twisting slowly in the wind.

When you do move about, you’ll feel more comfortable and look more natural if you follow some simple guidelines:

  • Where possible, avoid talking on the move. The tendency to keep looking at the camera makes the walk difficult to manage and the need to keep two things at once in mind makes for stiffness.
  • Don’t just move; go someplace specific. A move is always easier to manage naturally if it has a purpose. Some directors tend to move talent around to create variety. Remember, however, that video is a medium of closeups, which tend to make one part of the set look much like any other.
  • To cut most of the move completely, exit the frame in shot A and enter the frame in shot B (watching your screen direction).

Moving or still, you’ll often be handling objects. In a commercial, you may be demonstrating a product or showing a brochure. In a science experiment or cooking lesson, you’re completing a process as you talk about it. Whatever you’re working with, remember the three rules: rehearse, rehearse and rehearse.

You may find that picking up objects and putting them down is the most difficult part of managing them. You can often fix the problem by framing off the surface on which they rest so that your initial fumbling can take place off-screen.

That advice goes for you as well. Sitting down and getting up can be tough to do naturally. Better to make these transitions off-camera instead. One method is by cutting. Shot A shows you pushing your chair back from your desk. Shot B starts with an empty frame, which you rise up into as you stand.

Working Like the Pros

For a smooth performance, always know where to go and where to stop, which means hitting chalk marks (which aren’t always in chalk) on the floor. Again, the key to success is rehearsal. (See the X Marks the Spot sidebar for tips.)

In multi-camera studio shoots, you need to know which camera is live (sending your image to videotape). Nothing looks worse than a spokesperson suddenly staring off to one side because the previous camera has been supplanted by another one 45-degrees away.

Since video cameras carry tally lights that glow red when they’re live, you can see when the hot camera changes with your peripheral vision. When turning to look at the new camera, you have two viable options. With enough rehearsal, you can match or even lead the camera switch slightly, so that your head turn seems to motivate the camera switch.

As an alternative, try the paper-buffer ploy (notice how newscasters usually have papers in their hands or on their desks?). As the live camera changes, drop your eyes, as if to consult the sheet in front of you; then raise them again to face the newly active camera. The result looks muy suave.

Definitely not so suave are head wagging and semaphoring. Many people punctuate their speech with their heads, nodding, tilting, wagging, jutting and otherwise bopping around. In closeups, and set against the immobile image frame, these wild head movements can drive viewers crazy.

The only way to train yourself out of this fault is by watching yourself in a monitor as you deliver your lines. Constraining your head may make you feel stiff at first, but most people improve with practice. If you can’t eliminate this behavior entirely, use medium and medium-close shots, while avoiding the closeups that emphasize the problem.

Waving hands and arms can be equally irritating. As a rule, don’t use your hands for emphasis because they actually attract attention away from the words they’re supposed to be underlining. There’s nothing wrong with a clean, decisive gesture at key points; otherwise keep those flippers still.

When directing others, avoid camera angles that allow hands to wander in and out of frame. Tighten up to exclude them or widen the shot to include them all the time.

We’re out of time here, but before we sign off, don’t forget our recent piece on Teleprompters (Laptop Prompters, September 2001 issue). Reading teleprompter copy is the easiest way for an on-camera speaker to deliver scripted lines; and with laptop computers, even the simplest shooting setup can use them.

Sidebar: X Marks the Spot

Hitting pre-determined on-stage chalk marks is a challenge, but there are some tricks you can use. First, conciously work on your peripheral vision. Practice seeing those floor marks out of the corner (well, bottom, really) of your eye so that you can find them without looking directly at them.

Next, see if you can include a natural-looking downward glance in your performance to really nail that mark. Done with finesse, no one will ever suspect its true purpose.

Finally, learn to feel the hot spots of key lights, which are usually aimed to highlight you on your mark. When the suntan commences, you’re there.

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