By Shelby Rowe Moyer
A lot happens when you walk into a room to give a presentation, says Clare Haden, a Madison-based professional actor and vocal coach.
Before you even speak, the audience is visually scanning your body language for cues that help them form an opinion about how comfortable and confident you are — or if you seem nervous and distracted. This 10 to 20 second analysis is formed when we meet someone for an interview, speak up at a meeting or stand in front of a crowd at an event.
In other words, first impressions are important.
“But that’s so much harder to do when you’re on a video screen,” Haden says. “You can’t see the whole picture and it’s harder to read those cues in a video. You have to work very hard to make sure your facial expressions are conveying what you want to send out. And we have a lot of vocal variety, so you’re constantly listening for those cues as well.”
This summer, Haden has been teaching Acting Skills for Life for University of Wisconsin-Madison — a class that teaches techniques for stronger communication and public speaking. It draws students and professionals from every industry who want to sharpen their verbal bravado. Aside from the typical activities that teach students how to carry themselves and be aware of their tone and delivery, the class has also been a crash course on translating these skills to video.
Engaging Your Audience
Eye contact is particularly important when delivering a message on video. Viewers are going to be focused on your face, and breaking eye contact will disengage them. If you’re someone who uses hand gestures, continue to use them, and be aware of your vocal tone.
“People can perk up when there’s a dynamic shift with vocal energy,” Haden explains. So, mix up the tempo of your message, as well as how you project or express your voice. Listen to experienced speakers, like Michelle Obama, she says, and dial in on how they use vocal expression to rope in a crowd.
Haden recommends including some visuals to change up what viewers are seeing on camera, adding some personal stories into your talk, and outlining the “why should I care,” component early on. “They’ll hang out with you for the ride, but if you don’t build (the why) in early, then it’s a little easier to get distracted or not stay with you,” she says.
Create Your Own Energy
When speaking in front of a crowd, you can vibe off of, and get energy from, the audience’s reaction. On video, pretty much all of that is gone. Haden says she tries to visualize how she wants the audience to respond, which can help maintain confidence and momentum throughout the session.
If you can see people’s faces on zoom, take note of their reactions as well. Be intentional about creating pauses in your talk, which will give you a moment to look at audience reactions.
“It takes practice,” Haden says. “It takes doing it a bunch. People who have a big interview or a high stakes situation, it’s not unheard of to have them conduct it with friends or family. There’s so much value in being able to take the time to practice saying it out loud. That would be my biggest thing. Don’t go into it cold without having practiced.”
Build Up Your Confidence
Before hopping on an important call, Haden says it helps her to know that she prepared. She’ll take some deep, nostril breaths and do some vocal warmups to ready herself.
“You don’t think twice about an athlete or musician practicing every day,” she says. “You kind of have to do the same thing as public speaker. You have to practice and get your mind in the right space.”
If you want to know how you come across on camera, video tape yourself speaking. It will make you much more aware of your facial expressions, body language and tone.
Another exercise she finds helpful is to connect back to your core values.
“Think about when you were really connected to that core value and you felt really good about yourself,” she says. “What were you wearing. Who were you with? What did it smell like? Distill it down to six words, and a moment before you go in to do a difficult conversation or interview, focus on those six words. It connects you back to who you really are.”
Breath. Yeah, yeah. Everyone says this. And there’s a reason for it. Most people get nervous before speaking and your body goes into its primal fight or flight physiology, Haden says, which makes your breath shallow. Get a couple of deep, nostril breaths in, and that will help support your vocals and calm your nerves.
Toastmasters is a great way to hone your speaking acumen. President of the Menomonee Falls Chapter of Toastmasters Mark Person says their members are meeting virtually. During meetings, they walk through difficulties members are experiencing, before discussing techniques for prepared speeches — such as eye contact, audience engagement, speech structure and effectiveness.
Quick Tip: Keep your background simple. Person said he’s gotten feedback from members that distracting backgrounds take away from the impact of your speech.