Monday, September 13, 2010

So You Hate The Way You Look & Sound in Video? Here's What You Can Do About It.

Many times I have heard people say "I hate the way I look on video", or "I hate the way I sound in recordings". This is nothing weird; if you are not used to being recorded then there is always a disconnect between the way you see yourself -- always a mirror image -- and the way others see you. And you hear your voice partly through your head so it sounds different to you. Add to that the technical limitations of affordable hardware and its no surprise that occasional video makers are so disappointed. But there are some concrete things you can do about it.

1. GET USED TO IT. First of all it helps if you see yourself and hear yourself on video more often so you get used to how it looks and sounds. The first time will probably be a surprise but after a few attempts it will seem much more like you. Try also watching yourself on video in a mirror to get a more realistic idea of how others see you.

2. LET THERE BE LIGHT. Many problems are just caused by poor lighting. Modern video cameras will capture an image in almost total darkness but the image quality is only good in fairly strong light. Get some more light on you by going outdoors or moving near a window to get a crisper picture. Soft light from clouds or reflected from a white wall is best.

3. MOVE BACK AND ZOOM. Take a tip from portrait photographers and use a longer lens -- the equivalent of a moderate telephoto of around 100mm on a 35mm camera. You do this on a video camera by moving the camera back a bit and zooming in to frame the picture. This makes your face less distorted and also is less intimidating.

4. USE A CLOSE MIC. To get better sound never use the mic on the camera unless it is a good quality gun type that is very directional. Better to plug in a lapel microphone and clip it somewhere close to your mouth. This captures more of your voice and less of the background and room echo.

5. CONSIDER VOICE TRAINING. If you think your voice sounds thin and weak then invest in a few sessions with a voice coach -- many singing teachers can do this for you, too. You will be amazed at the different it makes to do it right.

6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Nobody ever mastered a craft without practicing it. Your first attempt might not be great but persist, make a few more videos and you can't help getting better.

7. MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Finally, double check that your expectations are reasonable. Let's face it, with the budget and experience that you have you are not going to get something that looks like Avatar. And we are not all Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie -- not that it matters because they probably have zero credibility in your field. Be happy with what you are; just don't make it worse.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Writing & Speaking Lessons from a Primatologist: Learning from Frans de Waal

This week I was fortunate enough to see the primatologist Frans de Waal speaking at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. He spoke about empathy in primates -- the topic of his most recent book, The Age of Empathy; he also spoke about popular science writing and how he mastered this difficult craft. His lessons are especially interesting for people who are at the beginning of their career, but also useful for people who are already well established in their field.

Professor de Waal explained that his career as a writer of scientific books for the general public began in the 1970s while he was a young scientist working at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. Arnhem had at that time the world's largest colony of captive chimpanzees and his job was to study their behavior. Out of gratitude for this unique opportunity he volunteered to present lectures for visitors to the zoo. Visitors were mostly not scientists and this experience taught him what bores people and what engages them. He learnt, for example, that graphs, numbers and abstractions put people to sleep, while stories about individual chimpanzees and specific incidents kept the audience's attention. Later he began also writing popular scientific articles based on this experience, and in 1982 he wrote his first book -- Chimpanzee Politics -- a daring move for a scientist so early in his career.

De Waal is a fascinating speaker and confirms what I have always told people in coaching sessions: it is NOT the little technical details that makes a great speaker, it is having a story to tell and telling it with passion. He routinely makes what the public speaking textbooks would call "errors", like looking at the screen, or pointing out the poor contrast in a video. Yet nobody noticed and nobody cares because they are so engaged in the story. On the other hand someone can be technically perfect and also perfectly boring.

So what are the lessons we can learn from his example?

1. DON'T MISS A FRANS DE WAAL LECTURE. First of all, if you hear that Frans de Waal is speaking near you then don't miss the opportunity. More in general, take time to watch great speakers in action, either live or on video.

2. FOCUS ON STORIES. It's not the abstract concepts that people remember, or even the facts; it's the stories. Tell your messages through memorable stories.

3. CITE CONCRETE DETAILS. Be specific and name names, places, people and other facts. Generalities bore people and make no impact.

4. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Say a few things but say them well. It is very hard to get anyone to recall more than three messages so be selective and focus on the key topics.

5. DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE SMALL STUFF. Don't let little technicalities of presenting take all of your attention. Most of the rules are only generally applicable anyway. Sometimes it is ok to look at the screen, but not to read from it.

6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Take every opportunity to speak and to write because you will master these crafts only through practice -- just like playing the piano or any other skill.

Learning the Frans de Waal way is probably the best when you are at the start or early middle of your career and you have plenty of time to master writing and speaking one small step at a time. For people who are already well established but want to improve their skills the best solution is 1:1 coaching because it takes little of your time and also because it avoids the risk of a public loss of face -- a concept that Professor de Waal's chimpanzees would understand very well.

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