Advice from a television news anchor:

how to “leap through the camera” with virtual presence


Published on: June 2020

Written by: Suzanne Bates

These last few months have given us all a trial run as news anchors.

We sit in front of the camera on our computers and chat with the audience just like a news program. Though many of us came in the world of virtual meetings kicking and screaming, we have acclimated. Our mobile phones are second rate. Virtual video has won.

Now that we are living in the virtual world, we’re starting to develop a more discerning eye. We judge what we see, often harshly. Sure, it’s been fun to laugh at cute puppies and unexpected guests in the background during virtual meetings, but the novelty of the faux pas is wearing off. Many people are thinking, “It’s time for me to up my game and ‘go pro.’”

One reason for a flourishing interest in showing up with a stronger virtual presence is that virtual is here to stay. Companies have started rethinking the need for so much office real estate. People are dispersed anyway. Commuting in most places is hell. Travel is expensive, and it takes a heavy toll on the mind, body, and soul.

Even with all their flaws, virtual meetings will still be convenient when offices open again. You can wear sweatpants, help your spouse make dinner, all while being very efficient at work. Good virtual meetings improve teamwork and can build strong bonds. A well-run meeting can democratize debate, encourage participation, foster diversity of thought, and speed work to get more done.

You, on the small screen

Given all these changes, it may be time to take stock from a communications professional’s perspective. Survey your personal “studio” – your home office – that stolen space in the guestroom, or corner of the dining room. Ask yourself, “What’s the message I’m sending? How does this place reflect on me as a leader and a professional?” Empty walls, bad lighting, layers of family photos on rickety shelves, and dead plants are not leadership brand builders.

Then, take stock of the VIRTUAL you. Who shows up on the screen? Each meeting with a colleague, client, investor, prospect, analyst, or an entire team is an opportunity to make a powerful, lasting impression. After spending two decades of my career in television news, I can tell you that the thought you put into this is not just a nice to have, it is a survival skill. You must be ready for the game. As I used to say to my friends who wondered how we met our deadlines, “Six o’clock comes, whether you’re ready or not.”

Not a natural-born skill

Being on camera is not a natural born skill. Professionals spend years experimenting to get their on-camera presence right. Through trial and error, they develop polish and their own authentic style. However, you can adopt habits that work if you know a few rules of the game.

Showing up in the little video square is obviously different from standing at the front of the room, though good presenters have habits that do translate. Eye contact, facial expression, small gestures make a difference. Mastering the “little screen” can be easier if you know the rules of the virtual road.

Six strategies from the news desk

In that spirit, I offer 6 tips from the news desk that can help you bring your best self to the virtual world, communicate effectively, and show up ready to shine.

  1. Ready or not, it is “showtime.” On TV, when the red light goes on, professionals set aside whatever is going on in their lives, and I mean impending divorce, children falling off bicycles, and general life mayhem. When the camera is live, it is “go time.” Leave life behind. You cannot be distracted. You have a job to do.
    Showing up in the moment reflects on your leadership and your professionalism. If you come unprepared, missing the right documents, fumbling for the agenda, and trying to locate a spreadsheet, you are not ready for prime time. It’s okay to give others grace for this, as a lot of people we work with are in back to back meetings. As a leader, though, you set the standard. Make a habit of collecting yourself a few minutes prior to each meeting. End meetings early, take a break, prepare, and be on time and focused for the next one.
  2. Leaping “through the lens.” Your computer is an inanimate object. When we look at machines, we tend to be less animated and more “machine-like” in style. To go pro, you must overcome this tendency. Look at the dot that is your camera, make direct eye contact, and imagine you are there in the room. Really “see” people on the other side of the lens.
    Sometimes it helps to remember the people on the other side of the camera are not just colleagues, clients, or prospects, but friends. Take time to ask how they are doing. Listen and respond appropriately. Let the conversation breathe. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by email or your spouse asking you whether you picked up the mail. Show people you are paying attention by conveying emotion through facial expression and vocal tone. Let them know they have 100% of you right now.
  3. Warming it up. Along the same lines, warm up the meeting by taking responsibility for welcoming others and setting the tone. Imagine you’re hosting your own show. Give some thought ahead of time about topics that will warm up the conversation before you begin, even for just a minute. Make the meeting more than a transaction.
    This is important because working virtually you don’t have available to you all the usual ways of warming up conversation in the room: arriving at an office, offering coffee, catching up on the weather, are all out the door in the virtual world. The best television anchors consider themselves hosts. They invite intimacy with appropriate small talk and curiosity about others. This rapport builds trust, bridges the technical divide, and makes you a memorable presence in the virtual world.
  4. Virt-U-al YOU. The virtual you is the best version of you in a small screen. How you appear in the frame matters. There’s also the question of when to stand and when to sit. Sitting works most of the time, so get a good chair that allows you to sit up straight, employing pillows or props if you need them to be comfortable. Slouching is disrespectful. For formal presentations, consider standing. TV anchors have a variety of places on set where they can do a demonstration, show you a map, share a visual. Standing also energizes you and communicates respect. Consider standing for a keynote, analyst day presentation, board or investor meetings and sales finals.
  5. Your virtual wardrobe. Sweatpants and sneakers, check. Fine for most of the time (except when standing on camera). You may be one of those people who just feels more professional getting dressed for your day and that’s great. What matters for everyone is what is happening from the waist up. I worked with a co-anchor who sailed his boat every day, came in around 5:00 pm, washed his hair in the sink, threw on a coat and tie and was ready to go. No one in our audience knew he did not own a pair of dress pants.
    The key is to pay attention to your “communication center” – essentially, your face, head, and shoulders. Think about where you want people to focus – on you. Clothing should be attractive and simple. No distracting patterns or oversized jewelry unless fashion or creativity is your stock and trade. No one wears ties except for formal presentations anymore, but men are the worst offenders when it comes to casual. Wearing your Saturday fleece on a virtual meeting says, “I would rather be watching Netflix.” Make an effort. It is a sign of respect for your audience and your people.
  6. Ad lib and be liberated. News anchors go with the flow of the news effortlessly even when off script with breaking news because prior to the broadcast, they have read up, talked with sources, prepared for interviews, and reviewed the producer’s scripts. This preparation is part of the routine and gives them the confidence to improvise when they need to.
    Just because you’re on the small screen doesn’t mean you can skip rehearsals or preparation for presentations. It’s even more important because sitting alone with the camera is unforgiving if you fumble or get flustered. Take the time to practice with PowerPoint, study your notes, and have a game plan. If you have rehearsed, are on top your game and well prepared, you’ll be liberated and able to ad lib when the moment arrives. You will never have to let them see you sweat.
    As we have learned from the news anchors who make this look so easy—it is possible to embrace the camera and develop the habits that help you can connect with any audience, inspire them, and energize the virtual room. If you take the opportunity to learn the lessons from the news desk, you’ll be ready to “go pro” in your next virtual meeting.

Get more tips on how to amp up your video presence here.

Ready to start a conversation?

Want to know how BTS can help your business? Fill out the form below, and someone from our team will follow up with you.