March 4, 2021
8 ways to defeat camera anxiety and deliver better virtual presentations
Contributed by Kay Butler
Confession: Speaking on camera makes me want to go back to 1995. And I’ve interviewed professional athletes and reported at crowded protests without a problem.
But once the record button is on, I start overthinking: Does my voice always sound this annoying? Am I making eye contact? How do I know whether people are paying attention or checking Twitter? The camera actually adds 10 pounds, doesn’t it?
Turns out I’m not the only one with (online) stage fright. In a 1994 experiment, USC professor T. Shelley Duval had two groups of 20 people perform set tasks. One was photographed while performing the task; the other wasn't. The photographed group was shown to be significantly more self-conscious—and less effective at completing the task.
“Photographs really cause us to focus on the gap between the true self and the idealized self,” Duval said. This makes us overly self-conscious, which then bleeds into our presentation style and ups the odds of unenforced errors. Although the study used only photographs, recent coverage of camera fright and Zoom anxiety suggests that self-consciousness carries over to online meetings and events, too.
The best defense? Preparation. The more you’ve prepped, the less you’ll be spooked by the camera once you’re logged in. So whether you’re a first-time presenter or seasoned public speaker, virtual events come with their own online-specific considerations to keep in mind.
Simple, but harder than it seems. When you're stressed out about a big presentation, it's easy to lose sight of the details... and commit a faux-pas as a result.
So as you log in, cover your camera screen, just in case you are not ready to be seen (i.e., while you run through your lines one last time). If your laptop has a camera cover, make sure it is closed or temporarily tape a piece of paper over it. Although the camera will most likely be turned off until it is your turn to speak, it is still good to take proper precautions so that you are seen when you are ready to be seen… and only when you’re ready.
Practice doesn’t guarantee perfect, but it gets you a lot closer than you’d be otherwise. Online and in-person, attendees can still sense whether or not you’re prepared… and respond accordingly.
Leading up to the event, have a friend or family member record you practicing. This way, you can see how your body language and words project on screen, can rewatch the footage and note areas for improvement before going live. Also do a mock run-through of your presentation using the virtual event platform you will use, so that you’re familiar with the software, and its engagement features, before the big day.
Then on event day, jot down a few key points on a sticky note and leave it nearby just in case you need a refresher or something to reference.
Remember that adorable viral video of two kids interrupting their dad’s interview on BBC News? It's all warm fuzzies until it happens to you. If you’re living with roommates, family, etc., make sure they know when you will be presenting (and give yourself an extra half hour before and after your scheduled show time as a buffer).
As a failsafe, hanging up a note on your door is another reminder for those who may end up coming in or knocking on the door during the event.
It won't stop your rambunctious two-year-old, but it can keep anyone over reading age out as long as you need them to.
Professionalism aside, a formal, office-appropriate look can make you feel and project more confidence on “stage.” From hair and makeup to clothes, ensure you’re comfortable and dressed for the occasion—and take it as an opportunity to treat yourself.
But there’s a caveat: If you’re really anxious about your presentation, consider wearing something more comfortable underneath to help you relax (my personal recommendation is business on top, party on the bottom).
It’s not about looking as fancy as possible, as much as putting yourself in the headspace you need to be most successful, according to professor Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion.
"Keeping a routine helps us maintain a sense of control and degree of normality in times when we are feeling a lack of control, which leads to stress and even anxiety,” she says. “What matters more than the actual garments we wear is that they help us feel good."
Have you ever talked to someone with your eyes closed? You can’t see when the person’s mouth is opening or closing, so you end up interrupting each other 50 times. Audio delays on virtual event softwares have the same effect.
Because of the time it takes for audio to travel, speakers and attendees can get out of sync and accidentally cut each other off, over and over again, creating a stilted conversation for everyone.
Pause about 2-3 seconds before answering a question/responding to someone just in case they are not yet finished speaking. Wait for their nonverbal cues—nodding their head or smiling at the end—to ensure that it is your turn to speak.
But practice can’t combat all your mid-presentation nerves, especially since you’re not able to see your audience’s reactions. Your shaky hands or sweaty palms won’t show on camera, but your audience can still sense your anxiety through your facial expressions, inflection and tells like tapping your fingers. Though some of your audience will be sympathetic, others will lose confidence in your session.
But you can stop anxiety as quickly as it starts. If you start to feel nervous, shaky, or worried that your speech is not going as well/smoothly as you would like, don’t be afraid to pause. Take a deep breath, peek at your talking points, then continue on.
You may not think to make eye contact online, since you can’t actually see your audience reciprocate. But whether in person or online, eye contact communicates to your audience that you’re engaged and involved—and keeps them involved too. Audiences can still notice when you’re glancing to the side too often—and reasonably conclude that if you don’t care, they shouldn’t either.
So treat your laptop as a stand-in for your audience, make eye contact with it, and sprinkle in some other natural body language (nodding, shifting your gaze, etc.) to make it seem more real. Keep any visual distractions away from your sightline during your session.
Silence your Slack notifications, too. If your audience wanted to get pinged every 30 seconds, they could just go back to their own jobs.
Speaking to a laptop that’s not talking back can feel like giving a lecture. But if you treat it as such, you’ll lose listeners as quickly as your high school math teacher did at 8 am. Whether you’re speaking or conduct a Q&A segment, ensure your word choice, body language and tone evoke an air of warmth and familiarity.
Make sure you are sitting straight with good posture, nodding to ensure that you are listening, and smiling to evoke a warm presence. You can still remain professional and knowledgeable about the topic at hand, but retaining a sense of humility will encourage audience participation as well as increase likability.
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