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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

The Camera Often Lies

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Red Riding Hood

I never use video to teach people how to make live presentations. In fact, I think video can be thoroughly misleading. Why? Because it’s a different medium -one that most of us had to get well used to in 2020-21 (I'll talk more in a later post about coming over well on a virtual platform).

If you're giving a presentation on camera, there are valid reasons for keeping fairly (though not rigidly) still. It depends upon the framing of the shot. In closeup, the camera picks up the merest twitch of an eyebrow – because that’s what the lens is telling the audience to see. If you're in longshot – i.e. your whole body is visible from head to toe – you’re creating a very different picture: we can now see what the face is doing in the context of the rest of the body – and whatever is behind or beside it.

Most professional training videos frame the presenter in a midshot: the person’s upper body is visible, but not their legs and feet. The frame of that image may well remain constant, with the camera locked off on a tripod so that it cannot move around with the person.

If that person uses large, full arm gestures, their hands will probably move up to or beyond the edges of the frame. If they walk around, they’ll keep moving in and out of the picture. So in terms of that picture, they’ll be moving about for no apparent reason: it’s too much.

Not so in real life. When we watch someone as an audience, we’re not just looking at that presenter, but taking in all sorts of information about the space they (and we) are in, and their relationship to it. They may be far enough away for us to see them, as it were, in ‘longshot’ – in other words, our eyes could easily take in their whole body if we chose to look, assuming they're not masked by a lectern or a table. And as they speak, we might well be looking intermittently at things around them, or around ourselves – even though we’re aware of the speaker and their message the entire time. So we’re making choices, albeit unconsciously, about what we look at, both with our direct gaze and with our peripheral vision.

The camera doesn’t allow any of that. It makes those choices for us. So if we see ourselves on camera and think we’re over-using our hands (or any other part of the body for that matter), we could well be right – if we want to come over well on camera.  But it can be misleading to apply that perception to our actual presence in front of a live audience.

Of course, there is no set boundary between ‘not enough’ and ‘too much’ gesture to apply to every live situation.  It’s horses for courses. In an intimate gathering where you’re close to your audience, continuous, expansive gestures would quickly become overwhelming. In a thousand-seater auditorium, that level of physical expressiveness – as long as it’s genuine – could be perfectly appropriate.

What’s important is being willing to adapt, according to the size and layout of your audience.

Most businesspeople don’t do that.  They have a single default level of energy that dictates the way they gesture, wherever they are and whomever they’re addressing. In my experience, it’s almost always set too low.

You don’t have to turn into a windmill. Nor – heaven forbid – one of those over-schooled politicians, regurgitating ‘positive body language’ straight out of a textbook, and utterly lacking in heart.

But do experiment with using just a little more energy.

And once you have the hang of that, just a little more…

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