What Not to Do on Camera

I think the Republicans set themselves up for a tough challenge when they cast Barack Obama as the outsider, Kenyan usurper while Mitt Romney was supposed to represent the traditional white establishment. Henry Kissinger even recognized it during the Vietnam War: “The guerrilla army wins by not losing; the conventional army loses by not winning.” I’m pretty sure he stole that from Mao, who was a horrible ruler, but a smart guerrilla strategist.

Romney and Obama debateRomney needed to decisively rout Obama, while Obama simply needed to not fall flat on his face. In the end, I don’t think many minds were changed. If Big Bird stood out as the most memorable phrase of the first presidential debate of 2012, then Romney’s much-lauded performance failed to land an attack that will stick in voters’ minds. It was a soft victory, elevated by low expectations going into the debate. Obama should have pushed back on those outrageous lies, but his weakness is that he always tries to stay “above it all,” which comes across as aloof.

I watched it on CBS, which used a split screen for almost the entire debate. Romney’s privileged smirk and mannerisms probably hurt him more than his own words. I’m curious to see if CBS viewers thought less of Romney because of his “off-camera” behavior compared to other network viewers.

Obama learned in 2008 that what you do when not speaking is matters. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve probably done a hundred on-camera interviews over the years and it took me a long time to learn that I should never look around the room or move my head when I’m not speaking.

The camera can cut to you at any moment. If I’m distracted by the activity in the studio or other shiny things, my eyes dart back and forth. If the camera catches me in that moment, I look as shifty as a cartoon villain. Always look forward at the camera, at the person speaking, or downward while appearing to take thoughtful notes. Otherwise, the viewer doesn’t see the distractions you’re looking at and — at best — it makes you look disinterested.

Looking at anything the home viewer can’t see is dangerous. Perception matters on TV. On the other hand, it’s possible to take too many notes and come across as disengaged — as Obama learned last night.

Sanho Tree is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. IPS-dc.org