Have you been up to the challenge of creating a “talking head” video for a business — with a “talking head” that had almost zero on-camera experience?
Did they want absolutely nothing to do with creating a video? Did they start to avoid you in the office and ignore your emails?
Finally, once that video managed to get produced and published, were you slightly disappointed by the final cut?
Let’s have a drink sometime; we both need to vent a little.
But, with my next statement, it is time to throw all of you (and myself) under the bus:
I believe that the responsibility of getting the subject(s) — the person(s) in your video — excited and prepared for your shoot falls solely on the videographer.
For the purposes of the article, let’s say that’s you.
What I mean by saying you’re responsible is, once the content (i.e. script/outline) of the video has been determined, the subject’s responsibility for creating an effective video is over.
Now, it’s up to you to maximize the utility of the tools and people involved.
In this article I am giving my list of “best practices” to make the most out of the people in your videos who may not necessarily feel excited or prepared to be in front of the camera.
Admittedly, this list of practices has only been proven in my own past production experiences.
This article is in no way an exhaustive instruction manual for how to prepare a subject for a shoot (if you want to see our exhaustive Video for Sales Guide, you’ll want to check this out). Rather, this is a good starting point to take into consideration and make your own.
I believe that every videographer has their own way of preparing subjects for a shoot that plays to their strengths and personalities.
So, let’s get started with the first tip. It’s a topic that I believe is the most important (and most overlooked) consideration when getting the best out of your subject on-camera:
1. Put in the trust-building time long before the shoot
Here’s an interesting thought many haven’t had while watching an informational video from a business:
“Huh, I wonder what type of relationship this person on-camera has with the person behind the camera.”
It’s an easy oversight for viewers because these educational videos can feel so direct; as if the on-camera subject is talking straight to you, without the presence or assistance of anyone else.
But in reality, that on-camera subject did not feel like they were talking to their future viewers.
They were most likely far more focused on who they were with at that moment, the person behind the camera.
This is why I am so adamant about hiring producers and videographers more on their ability to fit into the team’s culture and personality, rather than focusing heavily on their technical video production competency.
Today, anyone with an internet connection and a cell phone can teach themselves how to produce effective videos. It’s the soft skills, like making someone comfortable on camera, that are difficult to simply learn and improve.
This is why I take my “talking head” video shoots for what they fundamentally are: a 1-on-1 hangout session with me for two hours.
And, as I hope we can all agree on, your third, fourth, and fifth time being alone with someone is significantly more comfortable for both people than your first time.
So, before I ever begin video projects with new team members on-camera, I am conscious to make sure that we’ve spent at least a few hours together getting to know each other to build that trust and rapport.
I show them my ability to make them feel comfortable without the involvement of a camera.
I am mindful to make our first interactions fun, light, and (ideally) personal, and I’m sure to remind them that this engagement is similar to how the day of the shoot will feel.
Generally speaking, the more time you’ve taken to build trust with your on-camera subjects, the more that they will have the ability to be themselves with you. And, the more comfortable we can make our subjects, the more interesting, engaging, and trustworthy your video will be.
2. Give your subject instructions to prepare for the day of the shoot
There is something reassuring in knowing that all of the boxes are checked on a task list, that everything has been accounted for, and nothing is up to question. That way when you’re on camera, you’re not busy thinking about other things.
This feeling of comfort is something that you want to provide to your subjects saying, “you don’t have to think about anything, because I’ve thought of everything.”
This can be easily done with a simple, succinct pre-shoot checklist for the subject to follow leading up to the shoot.
I usually send my checklist to my team members two days prior to our shoot.
I break my checklist down into a timeline of to-do’s, starting with “the day before our shoot,” where I include light, fun items like:
Eat a substantial amount of your favorite healthy food
Call up an old friend and reconnect with some excitement in your voice
Stay hydrated all day
Layout your favorite clothes that make sense for this video
Get to bed earlier than usual
Then, on “the day of the shoot,” some of the requests I have are to:
Practice with your outline, but practice more without it
Do a few extra-smiley practice-takes while looking in a mirror
Try not to over-practice — we want you to stay genuine
If possible, communicate the plan to be without your cell phone and computer for the entire time of the shoot
Bring a bottle of water and your favorite sugary snack to the shoot
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that this preparation sheet is not supposed to give additional pressure to the subject — Exactly the opposite, actually.
I often tell my subject that the shoot will go great regardless of how much of my checklist they follow.
It’s just meant to be a tool to reassure them that they will be at their best.
Side note: If you feel like your production habits could benefit from their own checklist, then take our free Production Equipment Checklist as a starting place, and tweak it to make it your own! This thing has saved my projects in the past by allowing me to remember all the details.
3. “Own” the production time that you’ve scheduled
This tip is in reference to a book that has had more influence on me than any other: Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff.
He describes this idea that, in every human interaction, there is always someone who is “owning” the conversation; someone who is “controlling the frame.”
A real-world example that he gives regarding this frame control concept in the book is that of past President, Barack Obama, a man who has most likely held the frame of the vast majority of his interactions for the last 15 years (at least).
However, when the President of the United States goes to the doctor’s office, the doctor can take the frame in one swift sentence:
“Alright, Mr. President, please pull your pants down and cough twice.”
What’s more, the President welcomes giving up the frame to the doctor, because he knows that he’s out of his own element and is with a trustworthy expert.
You need to see yourself as the doctor, and the shoot location is your doctor’s office.
You also need to fully believe that your on-camera subject wants you to take the frame of the interaction, because they do.
They want to feel like you are confident, relaxed, and in your element, giving direction and advice whenever necessary.
This allows the subject to turn on the “cruise control” switch in their brain.
They won’t have to question themselves about how well the shoot is going or if you are doing everything “right.”
They will look to your attitude to gauge the success or failure of their on-camera performance.
To reiterate, be prepared and confident enough to control the direction of the entire shoot interaction so that the subject can simply follow your lead.
The more that you can show them that you’re in control of the shoot’s success and that they are just along for the ride, the more comfortable they will become with their responsibilities.
4. Control your studio setup space as much as possible
First off, I understand there’s almost always an effort to “ball on a budget” when piecing together a video studio in an office that’s never invested in insourced video production before. The amount of control that you have here can sometimes be completely out of your hands, but it is absolutely worth keeping in mind when you are choosing your shoot’s location and time of day.
You want to set your subject up for success by minimizing potential distractions and removing any possible variables that may make the shoot uncomfortable or more difficult.
For example, you want to make sure you secure the best light and can film your subject from their best angle.
Also, you should try to schedule your shoots at a place where there isn’t any foot traffic.
You don’t want your subject glancing at the door or window, anticipating when the next interruption will come.
If you aren’t able to find a completely isolated location within the parameters, then make an effort to shoot it at a time where you will have the most control of the potential distractions.
Another way to control your studio’s setup is by explicitly maintaining a technology-free zone.
This helps ensure that your subject does not allow themselves the indulgence of a mindless social media ping.
It also emphasizes that both you and your subject’s focus should remain on each other as much as possible.
Treat your shoot like a long, ongoing conversation that you’re controlling, where the camera just happens to be rolling for a part of it.
5. Give your best attention to your subject
Aside from removing distractions, you need to make a conscious decision before every shoot to put your “On-set Energy” face on.
If you’re having a tough day, or you didn’t get enough sleep, or you’re not as close with this on-camera subject as the last one, are you really going to put that all on this interaction?
No. You’re going to come in smiling, excited, and prepared to make this person look like a million bucks on camera.
You’re going to be having FUN, and you’re going to be ENJOYING YOUR TIME — regardless of if it would’ve happened naturally.
Also, active listening becomes hugely important, even before the camera turns on. You want to condition your subject as much as possible to feel like they are only talking to you throughout the shoot, and that you are the best listener they’ve ever had.
Make them feel like they’re engaging you during the entire shoot.
Give positive feedback throughout and use phrases to show the subject that the shoot is going even better than you had expected.
Lastly, when implementing this, ensure that you are coming off as completely genuine. You don’t want to leave the subject feeling like you’re faking this charade simply to help them.
6. Remove the element of time
Nothing can spark unwanted pressure and anxiety more than a tight deadline.
There are a variety of ways to show your subject that time is not a large factor of the shoot for you. First, this is something that you should explicitly say right before the shoot starts. Follow something similar to this:
“Hey [subject name], before we do anything related to this shoot, I want to be clear about one thing: It is my sole job to make sure that you look and feel good in the final cut of this video. I blocked off an extra hour for this shoot, not because I think you’re going to do poorly, but because I don’t want either of us to feel any pressure of time. The beauty of video is that we can do as many takes as we need to get content that we’re both really excited about. I have nothing to do but this today, but I’m almost positive we’re still going to get out of here ahead of schedule. Sound good?”
This type of pre-shoot tone shows your subject that you are on the same team.
It shows that you have confidence in their ability, but that you’ve also taken an extra measure to make this as low-pressure as possible.
You can reaffirm this by reminding your subject that you practically have an unlimited amount of memory card space.
This also helps to justify the implementation of the “no-stop rule” when filming with someone in the habit of stumbling on their words.
Instead of stopping the recording and trying again, simply push through the mistakes and move on through the content without stopping the recording.
The final thought: Publicly praise a subject’s on-camera progress as loudly as possible
Let’s face it, even when keeping all of this in mind, a subject’s first few videos are probably going to be worse than their next few.
It is your responsibility as the producer to highlight and publicly praise their improvements.
Seeing side-by-side comparisons of content can add a huge boost to confidence levels.
Positive reinforcement will be your best path to changing the minds of those subject matter experts who thought they didn’t like to shoot video at the beginning of their on-camera journey with you.
Worst case scenario, they’ll at least dislike it less.
If you are an exceptionally proactive videographer for your company, you will curate resources for your subjects to consume on their own time between the videos as well, much like Liz Murphy’s awesome article, 5 Ways to Be Comfortable & Likable on Video (from Someone Who Used to Hate Video). With a couple easy Google searches (or IMPACT searches), you’ll find tons of articles and videos to email out that can start to boost the confidence of your on-camera subjects.
Try these tips out with your “two cents” added in, see what works for you and your team, and lastly, keep creating!