Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best on Camera

Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best on Camera

by Vern Oakley


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And . . . Action!
If a message feels important enough for video, it’s likely because you want to move the audience to action—potential investors to take a stake in your company, current employees to embrace a new initiative, prospective employees to bring their talents to your organization.

Your video can help you inspire your tribe—the people you want to influence—to take action. But if you want them to do more than listen, your audience needs to feel an authentic connection with you. 

Veteran filmmaker Vern Oakley offers strategies that can help you relax and be their best, authentic self in front of the camera. The return on investment will be a stronger connection to those you want to reach; heightened respect, prestige, and interest in their organization; a stronger brand; and a longer-lasting legacy. 

​Leadership in Focus is a comprehensive, entertaining guide for leaders who realize that it’s not just what you say on camera that’s important—it’s how you say it. Whether a CEO, middle manager, or budding entrepreneur making YouTube videos to influence their tribe, this book will help them rally others around a message.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626342408
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Veteran filmmaker, teacher, speaker, and industry thought leader Vern Oakley is CEO and creative director of Tribe Pictures, which he founded in 1986.

Vern has created films for Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, universities, and their leaders. His mission is to help humanize the world’s most successful leaders and institutions, helping them to craft their stories and connect to the people who matter most. Personally, Vern has been on a lifelong journey to explore and express his own authenticity and to create meaningful human connections. To this end, he has studied with a variety of experts and institutions from Arthur Penn and the Actor’s Studio to Harvard Business School.

A client of Vern’s once bestowed on him the unofficial title “Business Artist.” He believes this captures his comfort with both left- and right-brain endeavors and his passion for sharing these lessons with others.

Read an Excerpt

Leadership in Focus

Bringing Out your Best on Camera

By Vern Oakley

Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2017 Vern Oakley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62634-240-8


Never a Better Time to Be on Camera

"No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings."


It's hard to imagine that film has only been around for a little over a century. When compared to artistic media like music, painting, and sculpture, film is practically in its infancy. And that's true of film in general. This book zeroes in on something much newer than that — the idea of leaders appearing on-screen to connect with their audience. Scientists are just starting to measure the effects of how individuals express themselves on camera. It's an exciting time. The brave people who already embrace video have been doing so without much knowledge as to how their appearances influence viewers. They know they can leverage their in-person communication skills in front of the lens, but a lot more goes into great video performances than most people realize.

The first leader to truly leverage film's benefits was John F. Kennedy when he went up against Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates. As he prepared for the debates, Kennedy had to have sensed the potential of television when he asked American film director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker, etc.) to coach him on how to behave on camera. Penn helped him learn to relax and urged Kennedy to be himself — down to that "Hahvud Yahd" Boston accent.

The debates were broadcast on television and radio. Radio listeners thought Nixon outperformed Kennedy, yet TV watchers came to the opposite conclusion. Nixon was nervous and sweaty; Kennedy was personable and confident. The election was close, but JFK won and, as TIME magazine noted, many attributed his edge to his brilliant on-camera performance.

The Kennedy–Nixon debates proved that a powerful on-camera appearance could eclipse the impact of the spoken word. Since then, politicians have turned television appearances into something akin to an art form. From Ronald Reagan to Al Franken to Donald Trump, politicians' on-camera skills have greatly enhanced their political impact. Business leaders followed politicians' lead as some of industry's biggest icons began to appear on camera. In the 1980s, Chrysler hired famed documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to direct a series of videos that were shown to Chrysler dealers. They were among the first videos in which CEO Lee Iacocca appeared, and they marked the beginning of a video journey that eventually led to Iacocca starring in several television commercials that resurrected the company's image.

The Maysles brought their famed direct cinema style to Chrysler's in-house videos. True to their method, the brothers didn't set up false scenarios or glorify reality. They strictly adhered to capturing Iacocca's true personality, which was refreshing given the artificiality of films and documentaries at the time. A 1982 New York Times article about the Maysles' corporate work noted that "the number of four-letter words enunciated by the Chrysler chairman [in those videos] seems to exceed the number of Chryslers sold last year."

In that same article, the brothers were quick to tell the Times that they did not have an affinity toward most corporate videos. David was quoted saying, "Most of these sales films [are] not very good. They're dull, they're done by committee, they're stiff." Albert shared his brother's disdain, "Most corporate films start as a puff piece, continue as a puff piece, and end as a puff piece. So no one's interested." Unfortunately, not much has changed in three decades. Now more than ever, viewers crave the raw honesty that the Maysles brought to life in their films. Even though we may never meet our political leaders, we expect to get to know them through their on-camera appearances. Millennials, in particular, see straight through the veneer when a leader tries to be someone they're not, whether on camera or off. But many organizations still opt for puff pieces over truth-telling, and viewers are forced to fill in the blanks about whatever they think their leaders might not be telling them.

Working with the Maysles on Chrysler's in-house videos helped Iacocca show his true self to viewers. By the time he was ready for national TV commercials, his booming personality nearly jumped through the screen and into viewers' living rooms.

Ad executive Leo-Arthur Kelmenson got the idea to have Iacocca star in a series of Chrysler commercials to help pull the company out of its slump. Iacocca's mission was to assure America that "The pride is back" (the name of their ad campaign) and that the government's 1979 bailout was taxpayer money well spent. Few leaders had appeared on camera like this before. At stake were the CEO's reputation and the jobs of thousands of employees.

The commercials featured Iacocca strutting across the factory floor spouting straight talk about Chrysler's quality and innovation. It was Iacocca essentially being himself. He looked straight into the camera and challenged Americans with from-the-heart lines like "If you can find a better car, buy it." The ads made Iacocca an icon for the American comeback and helped pull Chrysler out of its financial death spiral.

Now, we're not Lee Iacocca or JFK. But the good news is, these days we don't have to be. You don't need to buy an expensive TV commercial spot (although you can) or wait for your chance to be in a nationally televised debate to engage with a wide audience through film. All you need is a well-made video, an Internet connection, and great on-camera communication. These last details can't be underestimated.


According to Cisco, 82 percent of all Internet traffic will be video by 2020. Learning to communicate effectively on camera is not a choice for leaders anymore; it's a necessity because we live in a digital video world. Gone are the days when authentic video appearances like Iacocca's were a novelty. Video is now ubiquitous, and it's changed the way we're expected to do business. Today's audiences want to see leaders talking to them through computers, phones, and tablets at the drop of a hat. According to a study coauthored by Forbes and Google, three-quarters of executives surveyed said they watch work-related-videos on business websites at least weekly, and half surveyed were apt to share videos with colleagues. Technology moves so quickly that modern video platforms are in their infancy. Social media, YouTube, and business-focused video outlets like Kickstarter evolve every day, and there's no telling how new apps are going to affect the way video is distributed and consumed in the future. Tech is also constantly changing the recording mechanisms, the playback mechanisms, and how we work with the material. In 2015, the first feature film shot entirely on an iPhone was released at the Sundance Film Festival. At the time of this writing, iPhones already shoot at a higher resolution than HD. Technology informs how we view and create films, but it doesn't change the vital need to understand communication, body language, storytelling, and honesty. Those elements are timeless.

Whether you lead a Fortune 500 company, a university, a start-up, or a nonprofit — your on-camera appearances will affect your organization's future. Global culture has embraced video as the ultimate communications currency, but so far, many leaders are failing their audiences. According to a survey, 74 percent of consumers feel that open, transparent communication is critical to effective leadership, but only 29 percent feel their leaders communicate effectively. People naturally see their leader as an icon of the organization they run. If you want to connect with the people, you have to go where they are. You have to reach them through their screen.

Shrinking attention spans also mean your video has to be short and captivating. In no more than a few minutes, you need to hook readers with a story, communicate your message, and incite action. Once it's posted online, your video is likely to live on the Internet, or on yourcompany's intranet, twenty-four hours a day, indefinitely. Every time viewers watch it, they will experience your message exactly the way you intended it to reach them.

It doesn't matter where we are these days. The Internet and smart phones let us connect with our audience anywhere, at any time. This makes video the next best thing to delivering important news to employees, customers, or other stakeholders around the world in person — especially in cases when an email or memo absolutely will not do. It lets us control our message and show people who we really are during times when they need to know we're there for them.

We have the power to connect with audiences that are infinitely larger than those that Iacocca and JFK spent their lifetimes (and major corporate dollars) trying to reach. But our viewers can easily dismiss us if we seem untrustworthy. If you turn into a sweaty Nixon when the tape begins to roll, viewers won't hang on long enough to even hear your story. Or worse, they'll watch, but they won't believe a word you're saying.

Forget the slick performances that showcase the leader you think you should be. Those charades fool no one, and they push you further away from the people you want to connect with the most. The best leaders know how to let down their guard and communicate their vision, human-to-human, with every person they hope to reach.


Video is wildly different from a recorded speech, where the camera never cuts away from the subject, or a live performance, where the audience and speaker can share an energy or rhythm by being in the same room. Video is distinct in that its creators leverage the practices of film in order to craft a brief, powerful final piece. A professional video team can edit hours of interview footage into a few short minutes containing only your essential ideas. Other tools like B-roll — alternate footage interwoven with your speaking parts — can help viewers see a human side of your message that goes beyond the words or even your non-verbals. B-roll can be anything from shots of you playing with your dog to an exciting interaction with colleagues. I'll talk about these topics in more detail throughout the book.

It will only get easier to create effective videos as technology and film methods advance. On the extreme end, Japan is already using robot newscasters that appear strikingly real. Now, we're probably a long way from being able to replace you with your robotic twin, but the advice in this book should help you relax enough so you won't feel you need one.


As innovations soar, our longtime mentors often still possess the timeliest wisdom. I studied with JFK's TV coach Arthur Penn for years and I deeply admire his work. I hadn't realized Penn had possibly changed the course of US history until I read his New York Times obituary. The article notes, "Mr. Penn's instructions to Kennedy — to look directly into the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy — helped give Kennedy an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to Nixon, his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival."

This point helped me see that I'd been applying the concepts I'd learned from Penn and other teachers about acting, performance, and authenticity in theater and film to every person I've directed on camera. Penn inadvertently taught me that in a world laden with wooden video appearances, the best way to stand out is to show that you're a real, accessible human. His wisdom is still relevant decades later, and even more today, as we're glued to our devices and constantly craving human connection. The need for human connection is primal. It's a big reason I decided to write this book.

Never a Better Time to Be on Camera — Key


* Film is a fairly young art form. Not much study has gone into how individuals express themselves on camera.

* The first leaders to leverage film were politicians, but business leaders soon followed suit. Video is experiencing a renaissance as more and more leaders turn to video to connect with their tribe.

* Honest video communication is no longer a novelty. Audiences expect their leaders to communicate with them on-screen, and shrinking attention spans mean we have to make an emotional connection almost instantly.

* Producers can leverage film practices to craft a brief but powerful final piece.

I hope the chapters ahead will move you to make the most of your video appearances, because there's never been a better time to be on camera. Every appearance is a chance to build your culture, communicate your vision, and engage and inspire others. Your tribe is waiting for you to get real on their screen. Are you ready to show them who their leader truly is?


Speak from Your Heart: Connect with Millions

"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek."


My assignment was to direct the CEO of an international company in the entertainment industry. The leader was an urbane, continental woman who was sophisticated in matters of the media. She was, understandably, very busy, so busy she didn't have any prep time available to speak to me before the shoot.

The film would be shown on her company's private intranet. She had just been appointed CEO after her predecessor, who was beloved by the company, had stepped down. Tens of thousands of people would see her share her vision for the first time. She would be speaking directly to all of her employees, hoping to inspire them, connect with them, and make sure they were all working toward her new vision for the company. A lot was riding on this shoot.

The CEO knew her information well enough to discuss it on camera without a teleprompter. (See chapter 10 for more about the teleprompter.) When we finally met, I suggested she speak directly to the camera when she answered my interview questions. The kind of communication she was delivering is most intimate and powerful done this way. She immediately said, "I don't want to do that." Given her lack of preparation, who could blame her? It's hard to look directly into the camera. It feels cold and uncomfortable, but the end result is anything but.

OK, so maybe she wouldn't look into the camera, but I needed to help this CEO realize that this one short shoot, this brief interlude in her day, offered her the rare opportunity to demonstrate courage, imagination, emotion, and brio to tens of thousands of employees at once. It's crucial for anyone about to go on camera to have this mind-set.

My job was not to do the shoot the way I wanted; my job was to help this leader engage. Since I preach the virtues of authenticity, I had to step out on a limb and do something authentic. As firmly and diplomatically as I could, I said, "We'll do whatever you want if you help me help you to find a way to speak from your heart." This got her attention.

I explained that a more humanizing presentation would hold the viewers' attention and help them connect with her ideas. I suggested we shoot her in action interacting with her staff, and out on the street walking around her neighborhood. I begged her to be spontaneous and to answer off-the-cuff questions to which she had no prepared answers. She thought this over for several long seconds, shook her head, and said curtly, "I don't want to do that."

Her answer was the classic response to an unfamiliar situation where a person feels vulnerable, something I've seen often throughout my career. Many shoots begin with some kind of negative, dismissive power remark. For example, one executive said, "Let's just get this over with!" I don't blame leaders for being careful, but I also don't have to take a negative as a "no."

As we talked, I learned the CEO didn't lack courage, imagination, or humanity. The real problem was simple. Because of her jam-packed schedule, she wasn't prepared. I explained that the communications team and I had tried to get on her schedule to prep her. She knew this was true. So I said we could prep her then, we could make it work in the time allotted. And I reminded her if she were ever unhappy with a take, we would simply do another one and only link the best performances together in our edits.

I think the CEO sensed the seriousness of my frustration and decided my convictions were worth her time. She was willing to try something new. Once she made the decision, she threw herself at the challenge. My crew and I filmed her speaking directly to the camera about her love for the company. We used three camera angles, which let us condense her one-hour interview into a short, coherent piece. We balanced the interview with footage of her having genuine interactions with colleagues around the office. This kind of B-roll was the perfect way to show the new leader in time and space. We simply put her together with people with whom she had business to talk about, and let the camera roll. Viewers could see her real excitement as she exchanged ideas with colleagues and her whole team's genuine warmth and camaraderie toward one another. We also sprinkled in shots of her riding the subway to work with colleagues who lived in her neighborhood.


Excerpted from Leadership in Focus by Vern Oakley. Copyright © 2017 Vern Oakley. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The Video Mind-Set 11

1 Never a Better Time to Be on Camera 13

2 Speak from Your Heart: Connect with Millions 23

3 Nobody Wants Perfect 41

4 The Sacred Space 51

5 The Leader Has No Clothes 63

Part II Stepping in Front of the Camera 77

6 It's Not Just about the Words … 79

7 Meet Your Film Crew 91

8 Find Your Groove in Front of the Lens 101

9 Anatomy of an Effective Video 117

10 Teleprompter 101 129

Part III Beyond the Lens 141

11 Post-Production Magic 143

12 The Rewards of Preparation 153

13 Making the Leap from Being Good to Great on Camera 167

Part IV Video's Surprise Superpowers 187

14 Return on Investment 189

15 Leveraging Video in Times of Crisis 201

16 Creating Your Legacy 213

Acknowledgments 223

Notes 227

Index 237

About the Author 247

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