A longtime friend and colleague just completed a special speaking event, giving a sermon at his church. But when I was telling him how well he'd done on the video, he admitted he hadn't looked at it and didn't want to--so much so, he hadn't even listened to the audio.
He has that in common with the best in the business: Any professional newscaster, actor or performer will tell you that they hate how they look and sound when recorded, so it's no surprise we ordinary mortals do, too. New research suggests that if you hate the sound of your own voice, there may be a physiological reason for that.
As a coach, I see it differently: If you're lucky enough to be recorded when you speak--whether you do the recording or someone else does--you've got a golden opportunity to learn things you might never otherwise know about how you speak. If a video is made available to you, take the opportunity. Or rig your own ultralight camcorder or a pal with a smartphone, and take charge of your own recording.
Rather than torture yourself with how bad you think you look, focus instead on these cues and clues that would be hard to discern without help from a camera. This list is what I coach my clients to look for when viewing video of their speaking, whether it's in practice or the real deal:
- Visual "ums:" Instead of saying "um" when you're pausing to think, you may look to one side or up or down; make a repetitive gesture over and over; or move in a pattern, if you're on your feet and away from the lectern. It might be putting a hand to your face, a wink, a grimace. Watch for those patterns--freeze-frame if you need to catch them--and work on buying yourself time to think with new phrases, or work more on your message in advance and practice. If you're doing a gesture repeatedly, like putting a hand to your face, put your clicker or your note cards in that hand to interrupt the pattern. It helps to watch the video sooner rather than later after your talk to catch this slip-up, since you'll be better able to remember what you were thinking at the time your visual "um" occurred--and that may help you avoid repeating it next time. Often, the visual "um" happens when you haven't quite got your message down, or forgot something you wanted to include, just like a verbal "um."
- Invisible gestures: You may be gesturing like a windmill, but if it's below the height of the lectern or out of camera range, all the audience will see is your body moving slightly. That's great if you're gesturing to keep your speech fluid, since gestures help you avoid "ums" and stumbles. But if you wanted your gestures to help get your point across and hold the audience's interest, make sure we can see them. Typically, that will mean gesturing at shoulder or chest height. Practice will make that more comfortable for you. Also watch for the reverse problem: Gesturing right in front of your own face. If that's happening, gesture a bit lower. We want to see you!
- A body with a mind of its own: Some speakers planted in one place will sway from side to side, and some who like to move around wind up drilling a path into the floor as they pace back and forth, back and forth, in an unrelieved line. Either one calls for a change: You may need to focus on keeping your core body stable, or move in different directions if you like to roam the audience. If you are going to move your body, vary the pattern--think triangle, rather than straight line--and plan places in the talk where you pause verbally and stop physically, to break up repetitive moves. TED conferences have a reputation for speakers who move around, but in reality, it's not encouraged, and sometimes a simple shift of your weight from one foot to the other is enough to convey motion.
- How you react to interruptions: Listen for those unexpected noises--door slams, crying babies, audience laughter, applause, sneezes--during your talk. How do you react? It's a great chance to catch your immediate reaction, and to think through how you might handle that next time. While you're at it, pay attention to how you react when you're asked a question; your face may give a different answer than your mouth does, showing apprehension, for example, when you don't need to do so. And when you get applause, you have two choices: Talking right through it, a forceful tactic called "surfing the applause," or pausing to let it happen. My preference? Don't step on your applause. Let it happen! Knowing your unforced reactions helps you plan better for the next time the interruptions happen.
- Expressions that match your words: Your face is part of your connection with the audience, but it gets confusing, at best, if you look like you're grimacing when giving praise or sad when talking about something exciting. Since it's not at all unusual for speakers to feel disconnected from their facial expressions, video helps you focus and fix that. Most people's mouths, when at rest, are either flat-lined or slightly downturned, making you look bored or sad. Smiling, even a little, corrects that natural downward turn. You get to decide how much to smile, but smile at least somewhat. Bonus: It also helps reduce stress and makes you feel better.
- Gesturing. Yes, it's a good thing: Gestures are good for both speaker and audience, helping your brain form language fluently and helping the audience understand you, even if the gesture is random and doesn't match your word. But a little gesturing goes a long way. Think of gestures as a condiment: If you gesture for every word, or every syllable, you're weakening the impact. Don't over-salt or over-pepper your talk with gestures. Try counting your gestures on the video, watching for the repetitive single gesture that could be a visual "um." If you're not gesturing, or if you are immobilizing your hands in your pockets or by clasping them tightly, you may observe on the video that your speech is less fluent. And when your talk is being recorded on video, remember to keep those gestures small and less theatrical. Don't play to the back of the theater. Play to the YouTube viewer.
- Your posture and body language: Are your shoulders up around your ears, or slumped? Can we see your stress in your expression or your body? Are you leaning in one direction? Are your arms crossed in a defensive posture? Is your head down when you should be looking up at the audience? Turn off the sound for this review, and see what your body language says.
- Do you really look nervous? Do you look at ease? You may be surprised: Most speakers find they feel nervous, but don't look as if they are. If you're not sure, ask a friend to watch and tell you what she thinks, but most of the time, the audience can't tell that you're nervous. Many TEDMED speakers told me this was the tip that helped them "nerve up" the most before going on stage, so keep it in mind for next time.
- Can you hear your message clearly throughout? To find out, you may need to just listen to the audio once, then watch the video. Do you find it hard to follow your progression? Did you forget to include a key point? Did your gestures, movement, facial expressions and props help get that across? What can you notice that will help you next time in terms of clarity and focus?
- What did you do that was wonderful? You may need some outside perspective on this, but try looking for your successes in the video. Did you nail a great laugh line, pause with effect, gesture with aplomb? Did you feel and look poised and in command of your subject? What did the audience like and react to positively? Did you stay on time? Take the time to note what went well, so you can make a point of doing it again--and so you know you can focus on another skill the next time you practice.