Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!

Over at FemaleScienceProfessor, the discussion has been about videotaping of speakers at conferences and seminars. The question was whether readers had been videotaped before and if so, did they mind.

I once gave a seminar, which was part of a special series featuring distinguished women in my scientific field, and the organizers videotaped the seminars and kept them on file as part of a program in women’s studies. I was asked for my permission, which I readily gave. I was also at a recent conference (in another country) and was videotaped by the local media during part of my presentation (as were other speakers).

This type of recording (along with posting of PowerPoint files on the Web) appears to be a trend that is increasing at scientific conferences and workshops. As a speaker, should you be concerned about being videotaped? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being video- or audiotaped during speaking engagements?

In some cases, videos of talks are used to promote the society or whatever organization is responsible for the taping—they may post the video on their website, for example. People who could not attend the conference would be able to view talks they missed. This option draws visitors to an organization’s website.

I am somewhat ambivalent about this practice. On the one hand, I don’t mind helping out a scientific society create content for their website or perhaps to use the tapes in an instructional manner. Also, I (and my research) may enjoy broader exposure by having a video or audio of my talk posted on a society’s or another organization’s website. On the other hand, I may not want my new ideas or unpublished data floating around the internet. If the talk was not a success, I might not want a permanent record of the failure.

What to do if you are approached by a videographer at a conference?  You may be asked only if you mind being videotaped, but are given no details as to how that video will be used or if it is going to be posted on the internet. If it’s not obvious, however, I think that you should ask the videographer how the video or audiotape will be used. If you are not given a satisfactory answer, you can refuse permission to be taped. If the videographer does explain to your satisfaction, then you should ask for a copy of your videotape (more about how you might use it later). You can make this a prerequisite for allowing yourself to be taped.

The main disadvantage that I see in having your presentation videotaped, particularly for novice speakers, is that the presence of a camera or microphone can add substantially to the speaker’s nervousness. Anyone who has had a video-camera pointed at them and who was told to “act naturally”, often finds themselves behaving very “unnaturally”. It’s not uncommon for people to feel very self-conscious on camera, if not absolutely tongue-tied. If it is your first conference presentation and you are very nervous about it, you might not want to have this added stress. If you are given the option to decline, be honest and explain why you don’t feel comfortable being videotaped. Most people will understand and comply with your wishes. If your request is ignored, complain to the conference organizers or session chair.

Interview seminars may be videotaped so that faculty who were unable to attend the live talk will have an opportunity later to view the presentation. This video might be disadvantageous to the interviewee if she was extremely nervous and did not perform well. The search committee would have ample opportunity to review the performance and content of the talk at their leisure, instead of relying on their memories. On the other hand, if her performance was stellar, the existence of a tape will likely reinforce the good impression she made.

More universities and other scientific organizations are posting podcasts and videos of their scientists explaining their research. So, it may be a good idea to get some experience speaking in front of a camera. Also, seeing a video of yourself speaking, especially delivering a scientific talk, is very instructive. You may be completely unaware of how many times you say “uh” or that you tend to rock back and forth when nervous. People can tell you that you about these distracting behaviors, but it really takes seeing yourself do them to make you really aware of how bad it is.

I know some people cringe at the thought of seeing themselves on camera and would never consider using video as a tool to improve their speaking skills. I understand the feeling, but would not let that stop me. It’s relatively easy to videotape yourself, and then you can view it in private. A colleague routinely videotaped her students practicing for a conference talk. She said it was amazing how quickly they improved after reviewing the tape and their performance on camera.  She said that before she used video, the students often did not believe her comments about their performance.

But it is really useful to have a videotape of yourself giving an actual talk at a conference. Your performance may be totally different in front of a real audience, as opposed to the practice session with your advisor or fellow students. There may be problems with how you connect (or not) with the audience or other issues that are not apparent in practice settings.

So, if the conference is videotaping speakers, it might be worthwhile asking for a copy to review later. You could also ask your advisor or colleague to videotape your performance.  For an example of how useful this might be, see this previous post about giving presentations.

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