"Welcome to the…um…part of the December issue where we talk about…uh…[long pause]…let's see…we talk about on-camera delivering. Oops! [nervous laugh] I mean 'delivery.' On-camera delivery."
How many times have you seen someone talking into a camcorder with a speaking style that was so broken or boring or inconsistent it was actually painful to watch? No matter how comfortable someone may be talking "on the spot," speaking well into the unblinking eye of the camcorder isn't easy to do.
When we watch network news, a big-budget promotional video or a Hollywood documentary, we enjoy the slick verbal communication skills of professional talent. These folks often train and practice for years to nail the best possible delivery for the production. Thankfully, a good on-camera delivery doesn't demand the skills of triple-scale union actors. It simply requires a little practice and a firm understanding of what separates a bad delivery from a masterful one.
In the next few pages, we'll explore seven characteristics of a good delivery. In a nutshell, a viewer-pleasing on-camera delivery is:
- appropriate for the production,
- and confident.
The more of these characteristics you can muster up in your own videos, the more effective your communication will be. Note that we're talking non-dramatic productions here–acting in dramatic videos is another story altogether.
1. It's Appropriate
A good on-camera delivery is appropriate for the production. In other words, its pacing, inflection, energy and level of polish all match the type or genre of the video. One approach won't cut it for every production–all these elements can (and should) differ from video to video.
Before you begin shooting, take a big-picture look at your production and ask yourself some key questions. What is the purpose of the video? Who is the audience? Is a tight, smooth-moving on-camera delivery crucial to saying what you need to say? Do you have the time or budget or talent to pull off a seamless on-camera delivery? Is there a defined standard of quality you need to achieve with the video?
The level of perfection seen in a production varies wildly even within the realm of network TV productions. The loose, stop-and-start banter of a fishing show is a far cry from the tightly scripted delivery of a network news update. The more important or life-changing the information is, the more polished its delivery will be.
The quality of the on-camera delivery can also differ from section to section in the same production. On The Today Show, for example, the conversation has a much more polished feel in the studio segments than when the hosts are talking with the audience down on the street. The loose, improvisational feel of these outdoor segments is appropriate for the material at hand.
Make these types of judgment calls in your own videos. Decide how much polish is enough, and don't try to achieve something your equipment, talent or available budget won't allow. For a casual family-history interview of your 93-year-old great-great-grandfather, don't worry if things move a bit on the slow side. Minor foibles in speech (on the part of grandpa or the interviewer) aren't a problem, and can add a realistic "down home" feel to the interview. If you're taping your daughter explaining her award-winning science fair project, re-shooting the presentation every time she says "um" is a recipe for disaster.
At the same time, a delivery that is too loose can make a mockery of the information you're trying to convey in a more structured video.
2. It's Smooth
A good on-camera delivery is smooth enough to engage–and not distract–the viewer. Words flow from the mouth of the on-screen talent with momentum and purpose, instead of pausing, repeating and skipping like a scratched record. If you have the means to pull it off, most types of production benefit from such a delivery. It's a rare viewer who's put off by a delivery that's too smooth.
A smooth delivery is equal parts confidence, experience and preparation. Practicing in front of a mirror is a great way to get a leg up on all three, allowing you (or your talent) a camera's eye view of delivery style. Taping and reviewing some practice runs in a no-pressure setting is also a great tool for building confidence and on-camera experience.
A smooth delivery also depends on your talent's access to the information he's sharing with the viewers. In all but a completely improvised situation, you'll have some sort of game plan for the spoken word. This may be a loose outline with a few key concepts to cover, or it may require a full script that the talent will deliver verbatim. When your on-screen help knows where he's headed in the script or outline, his delivery will be the best it can be. When he has to struggle to keep his bearings, smoothness of delivery will be the first thing to go.
There are several tools you can place at your disposal to keep your talent on-track, ranging in complexity from computer video prompters to simple cue cards. Thankfully, you don't need an expensive electronic solution to capture smooth speech in your videos. Anything your talent can easily see without breaking his concentration will do the trick.
The humble cue card is a mainstay of network television and professional productions, from late-night comedy shows to training videos. Cue cards are cheap, easy to make and very portable. Any large posterboard or thick piece of paper works well; with these simple tools, the only other item required is a thick black marker. Place the cue cards near the lens, and round up a diligent volunteer to change them as the take progresses.
You can fill up a cue card with a word-for-word script, but this will often freeze your talent's eyes on the card and restrict her ability to move or gesture. This may be fine for certain types of videos, and some talent prefer reading a full script instead of improvising. If your talent sounds like she's reading, however, you may want to try a different prompting approach.
Instead of putting your script on a cue card word-for-word, try boiling each sentence or section down to a few key phrases. If they have a good grasp on the subject matter of the video, some people can improvise well from a very sparse cue card–even if there was no full script to begin with. A combination of key words and full sentences works well if the script contains specific phrases you wish repeated verbatim.
Boiling your script or concept down to a handful of key words frees you up to make your cue cards smaller, and gives you more flexibility in where you can put them. Any place your talent can discretely look for a cue is fair game. Taping a normal-size piece of paper below the lens works well, provided you don't need to change the paper mid-take. If your talent can discretely look down towards the floor, you can place cue cards there. Try stashing 3×5-inch cards behind something (a plant, for example) sitting on a desk or table. If you're doing an interview type of production, place cue cards so your host can look past the guest to see them.
Finally, your talent can hold small cue cards in his hands, provided the presence of the cards won't cause a problem for the type of video you're shooting. If you use hand-held cards, don't have your talent try to conceal them or be overly discrete. Short, occasional glances at the cards shouldn't distract the viewers or compromise the delivery.
Though it doesn't work for everyone, some experienced on-screen talent are able to pack relatively large chunks of a script into their short-term memories. They read a paragraph or two of text before rolling tape, then recall it for delivery while tape is rolling. Provided you can keep shots shorter than a minute or so in length, this technique negates the need for any type of prompter or cue card.
Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, your on-screen talent will have problems giving you a smooth delivery. When this happens, there are several techniques you can use to stack the odds in your favor regardless of the type of video you're making.
The first technique is to use shorter takes. Structure the script so your talent doesn't have to deliver four- and five-minute monologues without a slip. Second, err on the side of wider shots. When you're in tight on someone's face, the viewer picks up every nervous twitch, exaggerated gesture or glance at a cue card. Third, if you're editing, shoot plenty of cutaways to seamlessly join multiple takes together. These could be shots of the talent's hands, the object she's speaking about (if any), or an audience member (if appropriate). Finally, consider dividing the information between two or more people on-screen. This tag-team approach gives each person a break during which they can compose themselves and get ready for their next cue.
3. It's Well-Paced
A good on-camera delivery is well paced, being neither too fast nor too slow. Most people speed up their speaking when nervous, something that's obvious when you view the tape later. Some go the other direction, dragging the speed of delivery down as they painstakingly say each word. To show you what we mean, we videotaped these two extremes and posted the MPEG on our Web site (http://www.videomaker.com/edit/other/mpegpa.htm).
A good rough estimate for speaking speed is in the neighborhood of 130 to 180 words per minute. If you speak much faster than this, you may exceed the ability of some viewers to understand what's being said. Talk slower than about 130 words per minute, and you risk putting your viewers to sleep.
At what speed the delivery seems "in the pocket" depends on the type of production. Sales messages usually work well with a fast-paced delivery. Documentaries often sit near the middle of the pacing range, while training videos usually demand a slower, more easily understood pace. Experiment with different delivery speeds to find the one that best suits your video.
4. It's Interesting
A good on-camera delivery holds the interest of viewers. It pulls them in right from the beginning, then maintains their involvement to the final word. An interesting delivery works its magic regardless of subject matter. Great on-camera talent can turn "How to Change a Car Tire" into a gripping presentation.
One of the keys to keeping on-camera delivery interesting is variety. As important as the visual variety created by diverse shot selection and cutaways, variety in speaking style, pitch and inflection breathes vitality into a script.
When you listen to professional talent, you'll hear that they emphasize certain words and phrases in almost every sentence. The pitch and volume of the voice may go up on those words, or they may put longer spaces on either side for emphasis. The end result is a delivery that's constantly changing depending on what's being said.
Until adding this kind of variety becomes second nature, you'll need to make a very deliberate effort to get it. One of the easiest ways is to take a copy of the script and read it aloud. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, listen for phrases or words that seem to demand further emphasis. Your voice should rise and fall naturally in these spots. Where these words fall depends on the sentence itself, as well as your own delivery style. Underline or highlight the words, and read the sentence again. When you get to an emphasized word, really punch up your energy at that spot. If the results sound contrived or unnatural, try different (or fewer) words.
It's important to remember that most people err on the side of being too conservative with their energy and variety. They'll often feel that they're adding more than enough emphasis, while the delivery seems flat and boring to the viewer. What feels "overboard" to the talent is usually just the right amount of inflection.
At the other end of the scale, a delivery with too much emphasis and inflection comes across as canned and insincere. The breathless, hyperactive blather of a salesperson gets tiring after about 10 seconds. To attack a full-length video with this type of delivery will make it all but unwatchable.
5. It's Consistent
A good on-camera delivery has consistent energy level, inflection and pacing from beginning to end. Where these elements do vary, they change with purpose to match what's happening in the video.
Contrast this with a video where the talent's enthusiasm changes noticeably from moment to moment. When this happens, the end result looks and feels like a patchwork of different takes instead of a cohesive whole.
There are two key areas in which changes in delivery can be quite obvious to the viewer: pacing and energy level. If these two evolve slowly over the course of your video, there's a chance they won't be noticed. When they differ dramatically from take to take, however, viewers can't help but notice the change.
When shooting, the best judge of how consistent these elements are is anyone but the talent. Though the pros can usually feel when their enthusiasm level or pacing wanes or jumps, most people are unaware that they're changing their delivery. Designate someone with fewer responsibilities than yourself to watch for inconsistencies in pacing or energy.
Even with someone blowing the whistle on unwanted changes in delivery, it's helpful to have a rock-solid standard to judge things by. That standard is previously shot tape–simply roll back to the top of the tape and view a few takes. It should be instantly apparent whether the delivery has remained constant over the course of the shoot. If it hasn't, be sure your talent gets a chance to view the earlier takes. This will help him or her match what you've already shot.
You can spot and eliminate changes in pacing by periodically timing your talent's delivery in words per minute. If you make a note of where you started (say 145 words per minute), you can address the problem if you discover the latest take clocking in at a blistering 190 words per minute.
6. It's Natural
A good on-camera delivery is natural and free from exaggerated mannerisms you wouldn't see when talking one-on-one. A good delivery is also conversational, using words and phrases that are a normal part of everyday speech.
When thrown in front of a camcorder, many people are unsure of what to do with their hands or body. This uncertainty often shows up with one of two extremes: either they freeze and use no body language whatsoever, or they begin to use repetitive, grandiose gestures. Using no body motion results in a stiff, lifeless delivery that's not at all interesting to the viewer. At the opposite extreme, too many gestures usually mean a barrage of visual clichÃ©s.
Visual clichÃ©s are gestures that come very naturally to people when on-camera, and are therefore overused. You see these often in ads where the business owner (or CEO or founder) decides that he would make a fine on-camera spokesperson for the company. With equal parts zeal, inexperience and nervousness, these folks often turn in performances littered with predictable gestures. These may include pointing at the lens, winking, waving a fist, wagging his head, swinging his hair or thrusting his arms forward with palms upraised as if pleading with the viewer. Punctuating every phrase with some sort of body motion may feel like appropriate passion while taping, but will only look silly and unnatural to the viewer.
Some people show their nervousness and inexperience by abandoning normal conversation in lieu of lofty, pompous-sounding speech. It's as if they're thinking, "I'm on camera now–I have to sound more official." Instead of impressing your viewers, this type of delivery will come across as pretentious and stuffy.
7. It's Confident
A good on-camera delivery has an unmistakable air of confidence. This is comforting to viewers, who pick up an unspoken message from the talent–you're in good hands here. When talent lacks confidence, your viewers will sense that they're dangling on the edge of disaster at all times. This is not a good feeling.
Lack of confidence shows up in many ways: a halting delivery, fidgety hands, hands near the mouth, shifty eyes or a "deer in the headlights" fixation on the lens. If you're using inexperienced talent in your video, you can expect to deal with one or more of these traits. Thankfully, you can increase the confidence levels of these folks considerably with a few simple techniques.
If your talent has fidgety hands, give her something to hold as she speaks. This could be a clipboard, coffee mug, book or anything large enough to pacify her hands. Small objects (like an ink pen) don't work–they only make the movement more noticeable. Props add visual interest in addition to helping make the point.
Shutting off your camcorder's tally light (or placing a piece of tape over it) can help calm the nerves of some talent. Try stepping away from the camcorder when rehearsing, and have the talent speak directly to you instead of the camcorder. As a last resort for short takes, you can record with the talent speaking to an invisible off-camera listener.
Talent lacking in confidence will often call undue attention to their mistakes. If the video doesn't require a perfect delivery of every line, small foibles are no problem unless they turn into a larger mess. Encourage your talent to correct the mistake and move on quickly, without saying things like, "Boy–I just couldn't spit that out!" or "Let me try that again."
It's a Wrap
Anyone can communicate well on video–it just takes a little practice. The more time you or your talent spend under the unblinking eye of the camcorder, the smoother the on-camera deliveries will become.
And smooth deliveries, my friends, make for better videos.