Picture this scenario:
A middle-aged scientist in a white lab coat is speaking on film about his research on cancer. He’s sitting in a well-equiped laboratory and looks very authoritative. The camera gradually pans from a broad view of the room to focus in on the scientist. He begins by saying, “I’m really passionate about my work and want to share my findings with you in this video.” The only problem is that this cancer researcher does not look or sound passionate! Far from it. Instead, he sounds like a robot. He speaks in a monotone, does not smile or show any other facial expression, uses no hand gestures, sits stiffly and does not make eye contact with the viewer (his eyes are looking down or off camera). Things don’t get any better as he continues to explain the details of his research.
Now, I can sympathize with this guy because this is how my early attempts at making videos about my research looked and sounded. I’ve improved since then, but still find it really difficult not to come across on camera like Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series). Spock had difficulty showing emotion due to his Vulcan ancestry.
So what’s our excuse?
I think there are three basic reasons why some scientists come across on camera as being stiff and robotic: personality, training, and fear of the camera. People who are naturally gregarious or funny come across well on camera, but someone who is introverted may seem stiff or robotic. It’s possible to go against your natural demeanor, but you will likely find it difficult. I’m a naturally reserved, quiet person and feel terribly awkward when I try to be more extroverted. Also, I have to fight the years of training and experience talking to an audience of scientists, during which I cultivated a demeanor of calm confidence and authority. My talks at conferences and in seminars have been successful because those audiences expected a serious, academic delivery. But what works for an audience of scientists can be a detriment on camera. My serious, authoritative demeanor could be misinterpreted as arrogance or just a nerdy attitude. In addition, the camera not only adds ten pounds to your apparent body weight, it drains your energy. Consequently, it’s necessary to be more personable and to raise your energy level when being filmed above that normally used with a live audience. If you are like me and have a more reserved demeanor, you will have to work much harder than your colleague who is naturally gregarious and likeable.
Also, many people—even experienced speakers—freeze up when the camera is turned on them. They get that “rabbit in the headlights” look on their faces, and their bodies seem to turn to stone. Whenever a camera was turned on, I found it difficult to gather my thoughts and speak coherently. This reaction is a bit like stage fright and can make you look like someone with “Stuck in Their Heads” syndrome. Extreme self-consciousness is the culprit here.
After watching many, many videos made by science professionals (or videos in which a scientist appears), I realized that there were quite a few people out there with the “Stuck in Their Heads” problem. I’ve wanted to make a video tutorial about how to improve on-camera delivery, but put it off because I did not think I was the best person to tackle this topic. I thought it was better to hear tips about on-camera delivery from someone who does it well. However, it finally occurred to me that people might want to hear how a scientist with this problem has faced the problem and eventually improved.
In the video below, I briefly explain what I think are the main problems someone faces when trying to speak on camera and a few ideas of how to overcome them (direct link to video).
As you saw, there are several ways to improve your on-camera delivery if you are having problems. I focused on the most common issues and how to overcome them. My take-home message to you is not to give up if your delivery is poor at first. Keep practicing and you will improve. Even though I’m not as engaging or likable or convincing as, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and never will be, I have improved. More importantly, I feel less self conscious and thus more comfortable speaking on camera.
One bonus to learning to speak with more energy and confidence on camera is that it can help you in other stressful, speaking situations such as a job interview seminar or a TED talk. If you have an upcoming presentation, film yourself practicing your talk and try to apply some of the tips I cover in the video. I think you’ll find it’s well worth the effort.