The Science Behind Why Your Gestures Look So Awkward on Video

September 7, 2017

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Jordan Wellin


Have you ever been told that you use your hands a lot when you talk? You’ve probably never noticed it yourself in the moment — it’s just how you express yourself. But now you can’t not notice it. You get self-conscious about it, and suddenly you’re talking with your hands at your side every chance you get.

When you watch the video recording of yourself being on camera, it’s no longer someone else telling you that you look weird: you’re the one who’s noticing all of your supposed faults and quirks. You see that your eyebrows do a little dance when you’re excited, or that you look like a puppeteer trying to conduct a one-man show. And because everyone’s their own worst critic, you now feel so awkward about being on camera that you’re certain no one else would ever want to watch any video you’re in.

Our movements and posture are things we feel, but rarely see ourselves doing. Our posture reflects how we feel and conveys many nonverbal signals. So when you see yourself looking confused or flustered, you no longer feel confident about yourself.

But it’s important to remember that the way you feel in your body and the way you feel in your head are linked. Just as your body language on video makes you feel a certain way, you can also use body language to make yourself feel more confident on camera. Here’s how.

Why we think we look awkward on video

When we see our faces on video, we tend to dislike it because we aren’t used to the non-mirrored image. And when we hear our voices on video, we cringe because recorded voices sound different than what we hear when we speak. Turns out, our posture and gestures on video look weird to us for a similar reason.

Movement is something we feel, not see

We have a general sense of the relative position of our body, called proprioception, which contributes to how we feel our overall body position and movement. But this sense is something we usually feel, not something we see. So when you notice how you carry your body on video, your posture and your voice look and sound different than you had assumed — we experience cognitive dissonance, and it’s uncomfortable!

An interesting example of this cognitive dissonance of seeing our movements instead of feeling them is the tendon vibration experiment. It goes something like this:

  • First, a participant is blindfolded and both arms are laid flat on a table.
  • The right arm is raised initially to 50 degrees.
  • The left bicep’s tendon is stimulated for 10 seconds. The left arm is then matched to the same height as the right arm.
  • The experimenter then moves the left arm and tells the participant to match the movements with their right arm.

Throughout the experiment, the participant believes that their arms are matching in movement. But then they take off the blindfold and watch the playback.

Because they felt that their arms were moving in sync, they’re dumbfounded when they play back the video and realize that they really weren’t. Which brings us to mere exposure. There have been multiple studies done on this phenomenon, but the moral of the story is this: vibrations of our tendons lead to a bias in perception. What we feel like we’re doing no longer correlates to what we’re actually doing.

Going out of your body

This disconnect between what we feel and what we see has also been studied through virtual reality. A study published in Science examined how out-of-body experiences can be induced.

Participants in the study were asked to watch a video of their own backs being stroked. This video was either a live feed or slightly out of sync. However, the video would show the participant placed in a different part of the room than where they physically were.

After this, participants were then blindfolded and asked to move back toward their original place in the room, completely by feel. Here’s what happened: those who had the in-sync video — and therefore felt an out-of-body experience of actually being somewhere that they weren’t — “drifted” toward where the illusion had been shown rather than where they had actually been.

This presents an interesting idea that we experience our bodies internally. But when we view our bodies externally, our internal map of our bodies gets screwed. Particularly in this experiment, when participants “felt” their bodies in a different location, their bodily self-consciousness was influenced. While this might be more of an VR-related topic, it’s still an issue with video. It can cause us to feel disconnected between what we believed was our sense of bodily self-consciousness and lead to awkwardness.

How to feel more confident on camera

Not everyone naturally feels confident in front of the camera, and that’s ok! But it doesn’t mean you can’t appear that way. In fact, you don’t have to completely change how you act in front of the camera to feel confident — you just have to take what you naturally do and turn it into something that looks, well, natural.

Your hands aren’t awkward — they’re expressive!

We use our hands when we talk. They help us express our thoughts more effectively and emphasize important points. But we usually don’t realize how our hands look when we’re talking, and when we see ourselves on camera, it may seem like we’re trying to play Fruit Ninja.

But don’t let that discourage you from using your hands in video. In fact, being expressive makes you seem more warm, agreeable, and energetic, while a lack of gestures can be seen as too logical, cold, and analytical. So how should you use your hands in video?

“Being expressive makes you seem more warm, agreeable, and energetic, while a lack of gestures can be seen as too logical, cold, and analytical.”

1. Avoid using the same gestures over and over. This can get repetitive, awkward, and distracting. Some repeated gestures may even be misconstrued as aggressive or unfriendly. Not good.

2. Keep your body language open. People subconsciously cross their arms when they feel uncomfortable to give themselves a sense of security. So make an effort to keep your shoulders open and arms turned out, as it looks more welcoming and inviting to your viewers.

3. Hold something that not only makes you feel comfortable, but also is relevant to your video. Some people feel more comfortable with a prop, and that’s fine! Just make sure it’s something that actually adds to your video, so that you’re not distracting from the points you’re trying to make.

Your audience isn’t judging you — they’re cheering you on!

Another big reason why people feel awkward on camera? They experience stage fright. Not knowing who’ll be watching the video immediately sends our minds to the worst place possible. If we think we look stupid on camera, then everyone else will probably feel the same, right?

It’s easy enough for us to tell ourselves that this definitely won’t be the case, but it’s another thing to actually feel that way while filming a video. So make sure you’re creating a filming environment that makes you feel comfortable and allows you to get loose.

You want some tips for getting to that comfy place? You got ‘em.

  • If you mess up, laugh it off! Don’t be hard on yourself if you make a mistake once, twice, or multiple times. Even the best actors make mistakes (yes, even you, Meryl Streep). That’s why blooper reels exist! But one thing you’ll notice on all of those blooper reels is that they tend to laugh off their mistakes. Take comfort in the fact that everyone is on your side and wants you to do well.
  • Do as many takes as it takes. No one films a video once and calls it a day. You might pause when you didn’t intend to or think of a better way to say something after you’ve already filmed a particular line. Don’t be afraid to do another take if it’s going to make you feel better about the final product.
  • Have someone there to encourage you during the process. Even if they’re just there to tell you that you’re doing great, encouragement can be exactly what you need to overcome any initial feelings of awkwardness.

Getting over the cognitive dissonance you might feel when watching yourself back on camera is ultimately about getting out of your own head. Remember that you might feel awkward because you aren’t used to seeing how your body and gestures look — but it really is just you. Nothing to worry about, right?

September 7, 2017

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Jordan Wellin


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