In the past four years, in addition to working with the hundreds of storytellers who have performed in our Speak Up shows, I've also been working on a fairly regular basis as a coach for other types of public speakers.
I've assisted people with TED Talks. Helped corporate types prepare presentations. Advised professional storytellers and other performers and writer in the polishing of their material. Guided managers and other leaders in crafting memorable speeches and effective messaging.
Last week I wrote a piece advising Hillary Clinton on debate strategy that actually found its way to campaign staffers.
I'm still awaiting a job offer from the Clinton camp.
In all the time I have been coaching people, one thing comes up again and again that makes no sense to me:
People tell me that they rehearse their stories and speeches in front of a mirror.
I am always baffled by this statement.
Why a mirror? When you're standing onstage, speaking to an audience, you're never looking at yourself. You're looking at other people. In fact, the only person in the room who you can't see and will never see is you.
The only place in the world where you shouldn't rehearse is in front of a mirror. It's the only time that you are guaranteed to be seeing something that you will never see while speaking.
Not only will practicing in front of a mirror not help, but I suspect that it might actually hurt your performance. The very last thing you should be worried about while speaking is what you look like. It's your words, your inflection, your tonality, your ease of speech, and your choice of vocabulary that matter. The tilt of your head, the twinkle in your eyes, and the angle of your smile are all irrelevant. If you're thinking about your appearance while speaking, you're not dedicating all of your concentration to the one thing that matters.
Storytellers often ask me what to do with their hands when performing. My answer:
Nothing. Let them be. Allow them to do what they will do. If you're thinking about your hands, you're thinking about the wrong thing.
Mirror practice only encourages attention on your physical appearance. Don't do it. Practice in front of anything but a mirror. You have a greater chance to seeing a Canadian goose than you have of seeing yourself while you're speaking. Instead of a mirror, practice in front of other people. Or in front of pictures of other people. Or a wall. Anything, really. Anything but you.
Why would you practice doing something in a way that will never happen in real life?
Note: The one exception to this rule is if you are performing at Oberon in Cambridge, MA. There is a large mirror behind the bar at the back of the theater, so you can see yourself fairly clearly. It's awkward and disconcerting the first time you notice yourself, staring back at you, so perhaps in this one and only time that practicing in front of a mirror makes sense.