When I started making videos on YouTube, I was terrified. What if one of my friends finds my channel? What if I make a fool of myself? What if a random stranger on the Internet doesn’t like me? I’d been “the quiet kid” growing up, so even the idea of making videos was a step out of my comfort zone.
I had to do it though. I’d been blogging for a few years but was feeling stuck. I needed something new in my life. This quote from Thomas Jefferson that pushed me over the edge:
If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.
But an inspiring quote couldn’t fix the fundamental problem of being absolutely horrible in front of the camera. That takes a bit more work.
My First Video
Just so we’re on the same page about what it means to be “horrible” in front of the camera, here’s the first video I posted to my YouTube channel:
If that guy can make drastic improvements — here’s a more recent video — and build a channel to 33,000,000+ views, there is clearly a lot of opportunity out there. It’d take skill to be worse than I was.
Instead of dwelling on my terribleness for too long though, let’s talk about how you can make faster progress in front of the camera than I did.
Step 1. Find Your Inspirations
Becoming better on camera is, in many ways, similar to becoming a better writer. Just as a writer must read a lot of books to improve their way with words, a video maker must watch a lot of videos to improve their presence in front of the camera. By doing so:
- You’re exposed to different styles of making videos.
- You learn what “good camera presence” means to you.
- You absorb the habits of the people you watch.
It’s not good enough to find an influence though, and the point isn’t to find channels that talk about whatever you want to talk about. You should watch widely for the sake of your own enjoyment since something can be learned from everyone.
If you’re not watching online videos on a regular basis, get to it. Subscribe to some YouTube channels and start watching them daily. Let other Creators be the standard you hold yourself to.
Step 2. Plan Ahead
To this day, I still come across stumbling blocks when recording videos. I’ll be trying to say something but keep failing to say it. Then I’ll realise that I don’t actually have a clear idea of what I’m trying to say. I have a vague thought but no capacity to explain it.
It sound silly but, if you’re struggling to be confident on camera, you might not be sure about what you hope to achieve on camera.
To solve this problem:
- Stick with what you know. You don’t have to be a know-it-all. Talk about the topics that you understand deeply.
- Write down the main 2-3 points you want to cover. You can follow tangents if you like but be aware of the stuff that really matters.
- Keep the video as focused as possible. The more you try to cover, the more difficult (and overwhelming) it’s going to become.
You could also try writing a script, which some people prefer, but I tried that for a few months and found it difficult to deliver the lines. These days, I prefer working with an outline.
Step 3. Prepare Your Voice
The biggest killer of camera confidence is making mistakes, but most mistakes are related to voice — mumbling, stuttering, etc — and completely avoidable.
From here on out, warm-up your voice before every recording. It won’t just make you sound better. It’ll make it easier to say what you’re trying to say. It might even feel like your thoughts have been warmed-up.
Steve Cohen’s Win the Crowd has the best section on vocal warm-ups that I’ve read and these are some of the ones I personally use:
- Attempting tongue twisters. An actor friend of mine frequently uses, “Red leather, yellow leather.” Just pick your favourite.
- Humming a familiar tune with mouth opened and mouth closed. Try it with any children’s song or maybe the Star Wars theme.
- Speaking (or singing) in a string of silly voices. Deep voices, high voices, cartoony voices. Stretch your vocal range.
Also remember to drink water. A lot of water. But not just moments before recording the video. Get into the habit of having a large bottle of water on your desk and drink from it regularly. This is what Cohen says about water:
Pure water hydrates every cell in your body and helps make your skin radiate a healthy glow. More important, water relaxes your throat, making your voice more resonant. The moist environments eliminates any resistance that is presented by a dry throat and enables you to produce a richer, more pleasant-sounding tone. On top of that, it’ll feel good. You’ll feel the resonation and reverberation of vocal tones more distinctly in your chest and nasal area. This helps you produce a better-quality sound.
None of these solutions are difficult or time-consuming but their simplicity doesn’t discount the fact that they’re incredibly effective.
Step 4. Stand Up
If someone asked me, “What’s the biggest change I can make to my camera presence in the next three seconds?” I’d say, “Get off your butt.”
Because as someone who recorded hundreds of videos from a seated position, I noticed a dramatic improvement in how I felt in front of the camera (and how I came across) once I started standing up.
There’s three problems with sitting:
- Your posture becomes constricted and submissive.
- Your breathing isn’t as deep as it could possibly be.
- You’re left with a lowered range of motion.
All of this contributes to a sense of feeling weak and low in confidence. (It’s also bad for your health but that’s not as relevant.)
Compare this to when you’re standing up:
- Your posture is open and powerful.
- You can take in big, deep breaths.
- You can move freely within your space.
If you make your videos while sitting down, burn your chair, extend the height of your tripod, and make a video on your feet. Sometimes laziness gets the better of me and I’ll sit down but my videos are better when I’m standing.
Step 5. Practice
Although genetic differences play a role in our abilities, I’m a firm believer in what Daniel Coyle argues within the pages of The Talent Code:
There is, biologically speaking, no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do — talking, thinking, reading, imagining – is more effective in building skill than executing the action…
So while the tactics I’m sharing are useful, they’re a lot less useful if you’re not actively making videos and practicing in front of the camera as much as humanely possible. That old adage holds true: “Practice makes perfect.”
But as Coyle explains in The Little Book of Talent, his other book about building skills, talent is only built at the edge of your current abilities:
Ask yourself: If you tried your absolute hardest, what could you almost do? Mark the boundary of your current ability, and aim a little beyond it.
This point slightly beyond your current ability is “the sweet spot” and it’s where you want to be the vast majority of the time — in a place where you can struggle without struggling so much that it zaps your motivation.
It’s a hard balance to find though, so you might want to:
- Setup a new channel on YouTube.
- Record videos from a smartphone or web cam.
- Publish a short recording every single day.
This allows you to create videos in a casual setting with little preparation and endless flexibility of what you can talk about. The end goal is to get yourself in front of a lens as much as possible with as little resistance as possible. If you’re able to form that habit, it’s a matter of time before your fears begin to fade.
Step 6. Think Bigger
When I first started making videos, I searched Google for phrases like: “how to become better in front of the camera”, but I was thinking too precisely. I should have been searching for public speaking advice because that’s what video blogging is – it’s public speaking with a delay.
This might sound unfortunate since public speaking is terrifying, but it’s great news because it’s not hard to learn about speaking in front of an audience. There’s a ton of resources at your fingertips:
- Confessions of a Public Speaker the best book on public speaking.
- Win the Crowd is full of practical advice to improve your general presence.
- Any book about charisma will push you in the right direction.
And I hope you can see what we’ve done here: we’ve taken the concept of video blogging and “zoomed out” to see that its foundations lie in public speaking. You can approach every aspect of online video in the same way:
- Don’t learn “how to make good YouTube videos,” but instead learn about dramatic and documentary film-making.
- Don’t learn “how to market YouTube videos,” but instead learn about marketing and promotion in the broader sense.
- Don’t learn “how to make better looking videos,” but instead learn about photographic concepts like the Rule of Thirds.
There are new things to learn but it’s tempting to jump to the new stuff without focusing on the basics. Resist that urge. Start with the fundamentals.
Step 7. Close the Gap
At the moment, there’s a gap between what you want to achieve and what you’re able to achieve. This is experienced by everyone who does creative work and it’s something Ira Glass talks about in the video embedded below.
The advice is targeted at writers but anyone can learn something from it:
Here’s the transcript:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
For the most part, I’m a writer — not a video blogger. But video has been a big part of my life over the past few years and it’s satisfying to see the progress I’ve made in front of the camera.
If you’re curious about video, get started as soon possible. You don’t have to commit to anything. Just test the waters and see where it takes you.
Making that first, terrible video has been one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life and the same may hold true for you.