How to deliver a strong speech in front of a camera

It’s possible to engage your video audience—but it isn’t easy.

The best public speakers are like power grids: They channel an audience’s collective energy, drawing strength from laughter, head nods, smiles, and, of course, applause. This energy is digested rapidly and then discharged in varied forms—through changes in pacing, emotional expression, spontaneous witticisms, and so forth.
Like a supercharged utility, the speaker’s heightened adrenaline level further enhances performance by sharpening the senses and creating that delicious feeling of being very much in the moment and intensely connected to everyone in the room.

If only we could capture this lightning in a bottle and take it with us into the dark and sterile studio, where remarks must be recorded in front of a bright light and a video camera (and an anxious speechwriter or public affairs official or two) for future broadcasting.

Of course, we can’t. And we shouldn’t underestimate the profound differences between these occasions. Before a public speech, there is an opportunity to acclimatize—to psych up before going out on stage. By traveling to a venue, doing an advanced meet-and-greet with members of the audience, waiting in a green room, or even standing in the wings on stage, various psychological and physical thresholds prepare the speaker (consciously or unconsciously) for the main event.

None of that transpires before a recording session. Often, a busy executive is simply escorted to a media center, plopped down in a chair, and subject to an adjustment in lighting and sound levels. Then after a brief and often halfhearted run-through, it’s boom, roll the prompter and start recording.

Is it any wonder that the recorded result is often stilted, forced, and just plain dull? That the speaker sounds weirdly divorced from the message, even if it’s near and dear to his or her heart?

We need to find some work-arounds to avoid memorializing a coma.

Let’s begin with the script itself. You might see no reason why a well-written script prepared for a conventional public speech could not work just as well for a studio recording. I think that’s about 90 percent true. It’s worth fiddling a bit, however.

First, shorten and tighten the script as much as possible. Reading a prompter is deeply fatiguing for everyone except newscasters earning gargantuan salaries. Your speaker is guaranteed to flag at about the 10-minute mark. So either cut remarks to the bone or else break them up into chapters (with appropriate fades), with a brief stretch break between segments.

You might make a few strategic additions to your script that you would otherwise leave out. Specifically, sprinkle in some extra emphatic adverbs that serve as a verbal crutch in case the requisite emotion and enthusiasm are lacking. For example, you might try: “I am truly sorry I could not be with you in person today, but rest assured I am profoundly impressed by your commitment,” etc. This may sound hokey, but if your speaker is in “dry mode,” it could help him or her sell the message.

Next, consider—or reconsider—the inclusion of a favorite story, anecdote, parable, or joke. Let’s face it, we don’t tell stories to monitors, but to people. Yet many speakers simply are not facile enough to create the illusion that they’re engaging an audience when they’re not. Watching someone “read” a story and attempt to deliver a punchline without an audience to gauge delivery is not only painful, it’s a disservice to your speaker. Be sure you know your speaker’s capabilities before heading down this road.

Another set of cues that often suffer before a monitor involves facial expressions. It’s simply not natural to smile into a camera; it’s a learned behavior. If your speaker is stony-faced during a preliminary dry run, remind him or her to smile at the beginning, smile when a line warrants it, and smile during the close. This isn’t easy, but it helps to warm up a recorded speech.

People who are old hands at recording video messages may be equally good at delivering in both modes—on video and in front of an audience. They make a speechwriter’s job much easier. But many executives are not equally adept. If your guy or gal is a “people person,” they’re apt to flag in a studio environment. That’s where extra coaching might pay off—and a respectful reminder that their words will ultimately reach an audience that deserves the courage of the speaker’s convictions.

Then there are those who will surprise you, just when you think you had them all figured out. I recently watched a high-profile government official, who has struggled to read speeches before a live audience, prove he could be personable, engaging, and natural –and even ad-lib effectively –in front of a cold video monitor. Who knew?

Louise Garland, who is writing under a pen name, is a senior speechwriter in a federal agency in Washington, D.C. She has worked in the federal government for about six years and, before that, spent more than 20 years as an award-winning journalist working in print and radio.

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