One of our most popular idioms is “There is a time and place for everything.” When heeded, these few simple words can provide us with guidance covering all sorts of personal, professional, and/or social occasions.

This idiom is also apropos to on-camera performances. In numerous other blogs and articles, I’ve already explored what’s appropriate and what’s not – covering everything from body language and frame-size appropriate gestures to make-up and wardrobe. It’s time we add one more item to this growing list of on-camera do’s and don’ts: your demeanor and whether it’s appropriate to the situation, the message, or audience expectations.

When preparing for any on-camera appearance, think carefully about the message you are tasked with conveying and the tone and approach required. For example, if you’re a company spokesperson and you need to deliver a message about hundreds of layoffs, you want your affect to reflect the seriousness of the situation. A nervous smile would read as terribly insensitive and come across poorly for you and the company.

As a news anchor, I always tried to match my expression to the story I was delivering. Sometimes I would even put a note in the margin of the script, an emotional cue so I didn’t start a story with a smile that had no business being said with any note of happiness. However, there were some tough transitions when I would have to switch from a story about doom and gloom and immediately lead into a tease about an upcoming story on an 11-year-old’s homemade lemonade stand. Ugh – those made for some awkward emotional leaps.

To Smile or Not to Smile

To further illustrate, let’s examine how one of my clients came to me one day with a problem. She was hosting a video series for an external audience and was not happy with how she was coming across. Keep in mind this was a C-level executive who had impressive degrees and achievements to spare. She was certainly a master of her content with unquestionable credibility.

What was derailing her performance was the direction she was being given right before every recording: “Don’t forget to smile.”

No doubt, looking dour is not a good way to connect with your audience no matter what the occasion. However, not all on-camera performances call for a toothy grin. In this case, my client possessed what you might call a pleasant demeanor, but she was not an overly “smiley” person. Asking her to smile right before the red light went on was like asking her to balance on one leg. To her, it felt uncomfortable—and it showed! Her expression came across more as simpering than inviting. What’s more, the video series was of a serious nature, so a smile was incongruous with the content.

Lessons Learned

If someone tells you to be sure to smile, feel free to smile as you thank him or her for the reminder—and then decide if that direction matches your message (or even your natural style). If the answer is yes, by all means, go for it. If the answer is no, then strive to be approachable, authoritative, and authentic—but not inappropriately amused.

When it comes to time in front of the camera, there certainly is a time and place for (mostly) everything. To ensure your message gets heard appropriately, make sure your on-camera demeanor aligns with your content, your mannerisms, and the expectations of your audience.

Learn More: On-Camera Coach

If you found this information valuable, check out my book, On-Camera Coach: Tools and Techniques for Business Professionals in a Video-Driven World, now available from Wiley Publishing. On-Camera Coach aims to take the mystery out of communicating through the camera and provides specific tips and techniques that can make your message sing—and you, the messenger, feel confident in a job well done.