05 Oct How to Shine in the (Virtual) Spotlight
Odissi is a classical Indian dance that’s traditionally performed in front of a live audience. It relies heavily on dramatic storytelling through the use of body movements, expressions, and gestures. We are trained dancers who perform and teach this art form. We are also leadership development advisors who regularly conduct workshops with managers and executives. It may seem like a surprising combination, but in both of these roles, we rely on strong presentations to engage our listeners. We draw a lot of energy from being in front of a room, sometimes even onstage, connecting with people in-person.
Over the last six months, like so many others, we’ve been forced to move our work online. It’s been a tough transition.
Principles we once used to capture our audiences — like the manipulation of space, sound, and scene — were initially difficult to master virtually. Even after hours of prep, we would record shows and workshops only to find that our hands or feet fell out of the frame, our expressions were not clear, or our lighting was dim.
After countless failed attempts, we finally came to a realization. We can apply the same principles we use onstage to shine in the virtual realm, and when we do, our presence is just as strong. While they have roots in the performing arts, we have found a few practices are especially effective at enhancing our presentation onscreen — and anyone can use them.
Create a frame that highlights the actor. (Yes, that’s you.)
Artists plan their costumes, sets, and lights way ahead of time, and these elements work together to create a scene and establish context for their audiences. In this same way, you need to think about how you want to “frame” your presence during virtual communications.
This is much easier to manage on a large stage. On a device, your frame is much smaller, and it can be challenging to make sure people can see you well. But there are a few hacks that can help.
Check your lighting: When the light source is behind you, it casts a shadow and makes it hard for people to see you.
Fix the camera: The camera should focus on you so that other distractions — such as people walking in and out of your room — are out of the frame. Keep your camera at eye-level or higher (no one wants to look up your nose). If you don’t have a large monitor, you can always give your laptop a lift by propping it on a stack of books.
Plan your costume: The colors or prints you wear and how they contrast against the background is important. For instance, if you’re sitting against a white background, wear a bright shade so it highlights you. If your background is particularly busy, avoid wearing patterned clothes. White or extremely pale colors will blend into a white or light-colored background.
Add depth (if possible): If you’re sitting against a wall, try to have a plant, a set of books or a fun art piece behind you. That gives the frame some depth and helps separate you from the background.
Prepare your voice
Before any performance, actors and singers spend time doing a vocal warm-up. Just like other muscles, your vocal cords also need relaxation. Vocal warm-up exercises increase blood flow to the larynx or the voice box and flex the muscles that control your tone and pitch. This improves the quality of how you sound, which is critical to how much attention your audience pays to you.
Remember that people don’t have access to the full you, so they are going to judge your attitude based on what they hear. The way an audience responds to you depends on whether your voice portrays excitement, sincerity, nervousness, or anxiety. For example, monotone voices — where your pitch, rhythm, or timbre don’t change — are communication killers and put you at the risk of losing your audience.
Don’t speak too fast: If you tend to talk quickly, especially when you’re nervous, practice slowly down so that others don’t find it hard to follow you. You can do this in a mirror, or record and listen to yourself to see if you’re able to follow the pace.
Focus on your pitch: Pitch is the rise and fall, or the highness and lowness, of your voice when you speak. Think about the peaks and troughs on a cardiogram chart that shows your heart rate: With deeper sounds the line drops, and with shrill sounds it climbs up again. We all have a vocal range between high and low pitch that we can access. On a call, speak at a lower pitch and use higher notes sparingly (to convey surprise, approval, etc.). It is hard to listen to a shrill voice for a long time. (Pro tip: Before every performance, we make sure to drink a glass of warm water with honey to relax our vocal muscles. You can do this too. It will help you adjust your pitch more easily later on.)
Adjust the volume: Test the volume of your device before the call. If you sound too loud, avoid speaking directly into it. If it’s not audible, make sure you are closer to the device. All laptops and video call applications come with built-in features that allow you to test your volume settings.
Use facial expressions
We all know that body language speaks the loudest. Textbooks on Indian theatre such as the Natyashastra and Abhinaya Darpana explain how of facial expressions can help convey or enhance emotions and feelings. Other forms of body language, such as gestures or eye contact, can mean different things to different people, but expressions of happiness, disgust, anger, and surprise are universal.
As Odissi dancers, we are trained to emote all the nuances of the music and the scene — often with gestures as small as the blink of an eye. We know that even eye movements help convey the “mood of the moment.” Classical performers take years to master the art of facial expressions because how they hold eye contact and manage an expression determines whether or not they come across as authentic.
Maintain eye contact: Moving your eyes around too much can make people feel like you’re not really paying attention, or you’re disconnected from the conversation. And it’s easy to get distracted when you’re on a video call — slack notifications, pop-ups, and new email alerts. It’s best to turn them off and focus on the call.
Pay attention to your facial expressions: Your expressions help the audience relate to how you’re thinking and feeling. If you bite your lips or avoid looking at the camera, it can signal nervousness, whereas nodding your head and smiling can be a sign of acceptance. Think about what story your face is going to tell others on the call.
Stay in the moment
Once, during a particularly tense scene, one of our actresses dropped her collar mic. With incredible élan, another co-actor, who had spotted her mistake, picked up the mic and handed it back to her — improvising some comical dialogue around how clumsy she was being. This small gesture moved the scene forward without any disruption, despite the actress’s mistake.
All this to say, it’s important to stay in the moment, and aware of others, during virtual conversations. When multiple artists are on stage and it comes time for one person to perform their lines, the others don’t switch off mentally and start checking their phones. They focus on what others are saying so that they can help enhance their co-actors’ performance.
Listen deeply: Pay close attention to what — and how — others are speaking. Active listening involves not just knowing what the person says, but how they say it. Are they excited, nervous, unsure? Pick up on these cues. It will help you frame your response appropriately.
Build a conversation: When a new idea is proposed think about what you might bring to the table that can be of importance. It’s not important to speak all the time. What matters is saying something that adds value and moves the conversation forward, as opposed to repeating a point that has already been made (which can happen when you’re not paying attention).
More and more, it’s becoming clear that virtual work is here to stay. These techniques will better equip you to be the best version of yourself, even if it’s through a screen.
Source: Harvard Business Review