I get this, because it’s different and, I’d argue, harder. Because you’re trying to reach an audience that exists, but isn’t there.
I had to learn this when I started doing television after several years at CBC Radio. It was more of an adjustment than I expected. I was already a performer and comfortable in front of crowds: teaching, public speaking, the lead in my high-school musical. But what I could do naturally in person wasn’t coming across on camera, at first.
Then, things clicked—and I changed from being a reporter they were nervous about putting on for a live segment, to one they wanted “live” early and often. This wasn’t just experience; I figured something out.
Focus in, focus out
I learned this by watching my own work, and noticing there were moments when I saw a person telling me what she knows, and others where I felt nervous for or bored by the person on screen.
It’s subtle—too subtle to see in these grainy screengrabs, though these are from “before” and “after” live hits. In my early hits, I was looking at the camera, but my focus wasn’t there, because I was thinking about what to say next.
To connect through the camera, you have to shift your focus from inside your mind, to somewhere in front of you, reaching the audience. (I know, this almost sounds like yoga instructions; consider this the “pull your navel to your spine” moment of on-camera training.)
If this still feels too abstract, bear with me and take a look at that very famous Gotye video.
Painted limbs aside, check out his eyes in the first verse (say 0:35-0:44) compared to the second (1:04-1:12). You can see the transformation, from a man lost in thought to one talking to someone.
Most of us won’t be performing break-up ballads or conveying heartache in our on-camera appearances, but it’s still a good example of the physical change of focusing in versus focusing out.
How to do it
We focus out naturally when we’re telling a story to a good friend. If you teach, you can probably do the same with a whole classroom. So, pay attention to the way your face and eyes flex and engage when you’re comfortable and talking to a real person.
The trick is to conjure that same non-verbal communication when there’s a big scary lens in front of you.
A key part of that is really knowing your stuff—so you can be in the moment and not trying to recall your next line. It will take practice, but when I train people I’ve been amazed how quickly they can see their own focus in/focus out shift—and what a big difference it makes in their on-camera communication.
Even then, focusing out may feel like acting at first. That’s okay. You’re not acting like a different person; you’re acting like yourself when you know something and want to tell someone about it.
If you look nervous, the audience will be nervous for you. But if you look like you’re interested in what you’re saying, there’s a much better chance the audience will be interested too.