Need to Coach Executives Who Are Terrible On-Camera? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work in the communications media studio for a large company. I’m kind of entry level here, but I have a lot of experience directing video. I often end up working with very senior people to get short videos made for client work, proposals, stuff for the website, etc.

Many high level people who come in are—how do I say this?—terrible on camera. They don’t know what to wear, they are almost always unprepared, they haven’t read the script beforehand. Often they ask to use a teleprompter but don’t know how to use it, so it is obvious they are reading. If they choose not to use a teleprompter, we then get the dreaded “umm” which diminishes the authority of the speaker.

As a very junior person, how do I help these people help themselves? I’m not shy but I’m very aware that these people could get me fired if I cross the line.

Trying to Help


Dear Trying to Help,


Just kidding, haha.

I can’t believe this is a new problem, so I would say your first stop to get help with this situation is your boss. There must be a precedent. In theory, when a video shoot is booked, people get a list of guidelines so they will be prepared. These should include ideas for what looks good on camera and what doesn’t. You might suggest to your boss that you invest in some clothing in a range of sizes so you have options for people who show up wearing something that doesn’t work.

If your experience is like that of many clients I work with, it’s possible that either your boss is AWOL or so many people have been laid off that these systems exist but no one is around to tell you. Find out. If you do have a functioning boss, they can give you some pointers on just how directive you can be with people. If you don’t, well, you are on your own.

 It sounds like it is your job to set people up to win and make the best possible video they can make. The thing you have going for you is that nobody wants to look bad on camera. Tell people that your job is to make them look and sound great—then ask them if they mind if you give them some pointers as you go.

Many senior leaders are overbooked, and lack of preparation is not unusual. It might help if you print out scripts so that people can read them out loud several times before trying to shoot. You can give them the script and say something like, “Why don’t you take a moment to read through this out loud while they are getting the lights right?” The more practice they get, the better they will sound.

Using a teleprompter is wildly unnatural and takes a lot of practice to get right. Here is a link to an article I found that makes a lot of sense. It offers good tips you can share with people who are struggling. I’ve found a good way to settle into using a teleprompter is to run through the whole thing five times really fast. Then try it normal speed. There is something about doing speed-throughs that gets the words settled in the brain—and then the speaker can just be themselves, use their hands, and sound relaxed.

Filler words are probably the most common issue for everyone. Filler words aren’t just limited to umm. They include “so,” “you know,” “like,” “and,” etc. Some folks get stuck on phrases especially during transitions, such as when moving to a new topic, and they have trouble with an abrupt ending. “It’s really interesting” is an example of this. For folks who use a lot of filler words, here are several tips to help eliminate them:

  • Most people are not aware of their filler word habit. Tell your talent they are using too many filler words and their delivery will be stronger without them. You can let them know this is very common and can easily be fixed.
  • Most people are terrified of pauses and silence, so let them know pauses can be edited out if need be. Let people know a little moment of silence is OK.
  • Ask the person to raise their volume just a notch above normal. This tends to help people eliminate filler words.
  • Allow for multiple takes, with several practice takes so people can raise their comfort level with what they are saying and how they want to say it.
  • Encourage the speaker to breathe. Everybody must, and taking a quiet moment to breathe will help your speaker stay centered.

I think you might be overfocused on—or at least unnecessarily freaked out about—hierarchy. Yes, your customers here are extremely senior to you. But you still have a job to do, and it is to make them look and sound great in every video you are responsible for.

It might help to refocus on what your job is. Setting the stage at the beginning of a shoot and getting permission to offer direction and pointers will give you the leeway you need to help. Stay super positive—each time you need to stop and redo something, you can say “that was great, let’s try it a couple more times.” The more you make practice and repetition seem normal, the more normal it will feel. The more practice and repetition people get in a supportive environment, the better they will get. Only trained performers who have practiced and prepared get things on the first take. Set the expectation that great finished videos require lots of takes.

Worst case, you will have a cranky person who is too harried to care and will not allow you to give them the help they need. You do need to be sensitive to that and let the chips fall where they may. If people refuse help, it is on them if they show up badly in their videos.

It sounds like you have the best of intentions. Practice asking for permission and being concise with pointers. Don’t be shy about asking for several takes. Stay positive and point out what is going well. Your speakers will thank you. And those who don’t will have no one to blame but themselves.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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