Just as many actors are uncomfortable making eye contact with an audience in the theater, the thought of talking directly to a camera lens can give us hives too. (I’ve been on stage with actors who can’t even look their fellow actors in the eye, let alone make a sincere connection with someone in the audience.) Eye contact carries a level of intensity that can take us out of the make-believe world we’re creating.
In my experience teaching actors and others how to effectively address an audience through a camera, whether as themselves or as a character, there’s a common disconnect that frequently occurs. This disconnect produces various wooden, singsong-y, and blink-less performances. Here are three ways to overcome it.
1. Use your imagination. Actors have fertile imaginations, by definition, and should have little trouble creating a “real” face to take the place of the camera lens. The face you use should be that of a trusted and supportive friend or family member. They are intensely interested in what you are saying, smiling at the funny moments, and furrowing their brows when the “conversation” turns more serious. In short, the more you treat the camera lens as a real person, the better your chances of being effective. Talking sincerely to a camera is not natural. But you can’t let that reality be your reality.
2. Smile like you have a coat hanger stuck in your mouth. Ninety percent of copy delivered directly to a camera requires smiling. On the page, it may not look like joyous, jubilant or even interesting information, but to be an effective messenger of that information, you must treat it as if it’s the most astounding bit of news your friend in the camera lens has ever heard. In real life, when we are telling our friends that something wonderful has just happened, we smile. We even smile when we talk on the phone. Humans respond to smiling—physically and emotionally. Direct address (talking to a camera) takes this involuntary response and puts it on steroids. It is the single most important technique for effective hosting or product pitching.
3. Invent your reason for enthusiasm. I was shooting a hosting demo reel for a young woman the other day, and one of her scripts wasn’t connecting with her the way it should. She was having trouble finding the enthusiasm that good hosts must have. Knowing that she used to teach elementary school, I told her to put herself in the position of addressing a gym floor full of squirming second graders. You either get their attention, and hold it, or yours is just one of the voices bouncing off the gym walls. She instantly connected with that “as if” scenario, and like magic, her delivery was transformed into something compelling and yes, attention-getting.
Hosting is a great opportunity to connect, but the inherent artificiality of it has to be overcome in order for you to connect effectively. It's nothing to fear, just something to be tamed.
Brad Holbrook is the founder, chief cook, and bottle washer of www.ActorIntro.com, a Manhattan studio that creates video marketing tools for actors. He also trains and coaches actors in the skills required for performing on camera, privately and in group classes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brad has spent his entire adult life in front of the camera. After getting degrees in theater arts and journalism, he first worked as a reporter in a small Midwestern TV station. That led to a 20+ year career as a reporter, anchor, and host at stations across the country. For the past several years, he has had the chance to scratch that acting itch again, and has worked as an actor on NYC stages, as well as in network TV shows and studio films. Currently he plays a TV host in The Onion News Network’s continuing parody series “Today NOW!”