Practicing your speech in front of a mirror makes no sense

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.  

An important lesson for all public speakers, storytellers, and the poor souls who must conduct meetings

I love this church sign.

I love it because it's emblematic of one of the most important lessons for all public speakers and storytellers:

Say less.
Shorter is better.
Fewer words rule.

The 20 minute commencement address is almost always better than the 40 minute address.

The 30 minute meeting is almost always more effective than the 60 minute meeting. 

The six minute story is almost always better than the 10 minute story. 

And yes, the shorter sermon is always better than the longer sermon.

The longer you speak, the more engaging, amusing, and captivating you must be. That's a tall order. Those are high expectations. Most people are not engaging, amusing, or captivating by nature.

But that's okay. Like the sign says, you don't have to be nearly as good if you can be quick. 

Shorter is also harder. I often tell storytellers that it's easy to tell an 8-10 minute story. Almost anyone can find a way to get from beginning to end in 10 minutes.

But it's hard to tell a 5-6 minute story. It means making difficult choices about what will stay and what will go. It requires careful crafting and clever construction. Words and phrases must be expertly manipulated. Your choices must be spot-on.  

But the results are often superior.

One of the most popular stories that I tell is about four minutes long, and while the story is good and actually won a Moth StorySLAM, I remain convinced that audiences like it because it's short. I pack a ton of suspense and humor and heart into four minutes, making the story seem exceedingly satisfying. 

I could easily turn that four minute gem into a longer, more complex story, and I nearly did when The Moth asked me to tell it on their Mainstage. I began expanding the story, finding areas to explore in more depth, and while the results would have been excellent, I think the pace and hilarity of the story might have suffered greatly.

Ultimately, we decided on a different story for that Mainstage show, so I never had the chance to see the results of the longer story.   

But here is what I know:

The longer you speak, the more perfect and precise you must be. The longer you stand in front of an audience - whether it be a theater or a boardroom - the more entertaining and engaging your words must be.

So speak less. Make time your ally.

13 Rules for an Effective (and Perhaps Even Inspiring) Commencement Address

I have been listening to a lot of commencement addresses over the past two weeks, and I've been a listener of commencement addresses for a long time. 

NPR's The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever, with more than 350 speeches going back to 1774, is a good place to start. Many have videos of the speeches, and there is text for those that were never recorded. 

This graduation season, I have heard many poorly delivered speeches. A handful of adequate to good speeches. A couple very good speeches. 

Two to be exact.

I may be picky, but I think a good commencement address is a hard thing to come by. 

My personal experience delivering commencement speeches is limited. I have delivered exactly one commencement address in my life. It was good but not great. I've also delivered two convocation speeches. Both were very good in my not-so-humble opinion. 

Keeping my relative inexperience with commencement speech in mind, I offer the following rules for an effective and inspiring commencement speech.

  1. Don't compliment yourself. Don't praise your accomplishments in any way. It is not your day. Even if you're delivering the valedictory speech, it's still not your day. It's a day for every person in your graduating class. Don't place your accomplishments ahead of theirs. You've already been recognized as valedictorian. That should be more than enough credit for one day. Make the speech about something other than the great things you have done.   
  2. Be self-deprecating, but only if it is real. Don't ever pretend to be self-deprecating. Everyone will see right through you. This is worse than being self-congratulatory.  
  3. Don't ask rhetorical questions. These questions always break momentum and defer your authority as the speaker onto your audience. Also, audience members will sometimes answer these questions and interrupt you, which is never good.
  4. Offer one granular bit of wisdom. Something that is both applicable and memorable. Anyone can deliver a speech filled with sweeping generalities. Most people are capable of offering old chestnuts and choice proverbs. The great commencement speakers manage to lodge a small, original, useful, and memorable idea in the minds of the graduates. It's the offer of one final lesson - a bit of compelling wisdom and insight that the graduates will remember long after they have tossed their caps and moved into the greater world.
  5. Don't cater any part of your speech to the parents of the graduates. As much as they may think otherwise, this is not their day either. This is a speech directed at the graduates. 
  6. Make your audience laugh.
  7. Never reference the weather or the temperature. If it's a beautiful day, everyone knows it. If it's not, reminding your audience about the heat or rain is stupid. There is nothing more benign and meaningless as talking of the weather. 
  8. Speak as if you were speaking to friends. Be yourself. If your language sounds more formal than your normal speech, you have failed. 
  9. Emotion is good. Be enthusiastic. Excited. Hopeful. Even angry if needed. Anything but staid and somber. This is not a policy speech or a lecture. It is an inspirational address. 
  10. If you plan on describing the world in which the graduates will be entering, don't. It's ridiculous to assume that the world as you see it resembles the world in which this diverse group of people will be entering. Your prognostications will most assuredly prove to be wrong. The paths of these graduates are multitudinous. Some will be moving onto higher levels of education. Others will be hired for jobs that may not even exist yet. Others will join family businesses, travel the world, launch their own companies, or returning home to care for aging parents. Telling these people what the world will be like for them requires hubris on a monumental scale. 
  11. Don't define terms by quoting the dictionary. "Webster's Dictionary says..." are three words that should be banned from all speeches and essays until the end of time.  
  12. Don't use a quote that you've heard someone use in a previous commencement speech. Don't use a quote at all if possible. Instead, be quotable. Your job is not to recycle but create something new.
  13. End your speech in less than the allotted time.

A note on #4, which is probably the most important of the rules:

In 2016, Mo Rocca delivered a commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College. I don't love his speech overall, but he manages to provide one granular bit of wisdom that is both applicable and memorable.

Some perspective: Your great-grandparents—and some of you may be lucky enough to have known them—survived the Great Depression and defended freedom during World War II, defeating Hitler and the forces of darkness, ensuring that their progeny could also enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s a very good reason the women and men of that generation are known in history as the Greatest Generation.

Well, I did some research, and it turns out that the life expectancy of that generation was just 54. Your life expectancy is 76. That means that you can take a deep breath, chill out—catch up on House of Cards and Narcos—and spend the next 22 years figuring out what you want to do—and you could still end up matching the achievements of the Greatest Generation.
— Mo Rocca

This singular idea - that graduates today will live on average 22 years longer than those from the Greatest Generation, is a tremendous bit of wisdom. He uses this to encourage graduates to relax. Place less pressure on themselves to succeed immediately. He encourages them to take the time to explore the world. Try out many things. Consider all their options. Stumble into opportunities. 

Rocca says:

Some of you may not know exactly what you want to do or who you want to be. Your brain may be whiting out from too much possibility. Or maybe you’re simply drawing a blank. You haven’t found your passion. Well there’s no shame it that. Quite the opposite.
— Mo Rocca

His speech may be imperfect, but the wisdom is not, and it will remain with me for a long, long time. I've already used it twice when speaking with people who I serve as a life coach, to remind them that it's never too late to start something new. We have more time than we think.

This is exactly what you want from a commencement speech: one final lesson that graduates (and commencement speech stalkers like me) can use. 

How I became a storyteller (and many other things)

These two circles say it all. 

I wanted to tell stories. I was afraid to tell stories. I didn't know if I could tell stories. I was afraid to discover that I wouldn't be able to tell stories. I knew that standing on a stage in New York City to tell stories meant exposing myself to public failure.

So I decided to tell stories. Despite crushing self-doubt and enormous fear, I went to where the magic happens. And it did.

These two circles apply to so much that I have done in my life. The farther I stray from my comfort zone, the better my life gets.

This is also exactly how my wife became the consummate and beloved host of Speak Up, our storytelling show. 

She wanted to have an integral and public role in Speak Up, so she knew that she had to host our show. But she didn't want to be the host of the show. She didn't want to speak to large groups of strangers. She was afraid to speak to large groups of strangers. She physically shook when speaking to large groups of strangers. She had nightmares about speaking to large groups of strangers. She didn't think she would be very good at hosting our show.

Then she decided to host our show, and it's no exaggeration to say that she is in many ways the face and the heart of what we do.

I tell a story at every one of our shows, and yet people see me in public and often say, "Hey, you're married to the Speak Up girl."

Yes, I am. You have clearly forgotten about me and my story, but you remember her, and I don't blame you one bit.

Stop saying that women are beautiful.

I was speaking at a conference recently. There were seven speakers in all - five women and two men. Each of us was introduced prior to our talk by one of the organizers.

During the introductions of three of the five female speakers, the organizer mentioned the woman's physical appearance.

"... the brilliant and beautiful..."

"... not only is she beautiful, but she is a published expert in her field..."  

"... a beautiful woman with a bold vision..."

Pay attention to the way women are introduced at events like this in the future. Their physical appearance is often mentioned as a part of the introduction, and almost always by other women.

Conversely, men's physical appearance is never mentioned. I have been introduced hundreds of times prior to a speech, story, or talk, and my physical appearance has never been included in the list of accolades or accomplishments. 

This needs to stop, for a few reasons:

  1. It's inappropriate. Physical appearance is irrelevant and should not be touted as a means of introducing a speaker. Doing so implies that beauty is just as important as the woman's professional accomplishments or academic pedigree. The last thing anyone should be talking about is what a woman looks like prior to listening to her speak.    
  2. When you mention the beauty of one female speaker but fail to do so for another female speaker (or even a male speaker), you risk hurting the feelings or offending the speakers whose physical appearance was unmentioned. I couldn't help but wonder if the two women whose physical appearance was not mentioned at that recent conference noticed the difference in introductory content. It was also interesting to note that the two women whose beauty was not mentioned were African American, while the other three were white.   
  3. Mentioning a woman's physical appearance during an introduction is sexist. The notion that we would include female appearance but not male appearance in an introduction implies that a woman's appearance is an important and relevant part of her value to society.   

Even if you can't agree with these first three reasons (and I honestly can't imagine any sane person not), here is one based solely on logic:

Unless the audience is comprised of blind people, mentioning that a woman is beautiful before she takes the stage is simply stating the obvious. The audience members are about to see the woman, and her beauty will therefore be apparent. From a logical standpoint, mentioning the physical appearance of a speaker is redundant and meaningless, because that beauty is about to take center stage.

This may seem like a small thing to you, but it is not. The perpetuation of the notion that a woman's physical appearance is an important part of her value and worth to society must be stopped whenever possible. This constant, public acknowledgement of the importance of a woman's appearance seems innocent enough, but it represents and reinforces the sexist, shallow, and stupid notions that we have about what is important in our culture. 

If you're introducing a female speaker, say nothing about her appearance. 

If you're a woman who is about to be introduced, make a point of asking that your physical appearance not be mentioned as a part of your introduction.

End this stupidity today. 

A bungled MVP presentation demonstrates a truth about storytelling. Also, I’m available for hire, Chevy. And you need me. Desperately.

As part of Speak Up, our Hartford-based storytelling organization, my wife and I teach storytelling and public speaking to large classes, small groups, and individual storytellers.


After watching the Chevrolet’s Rikk Wilde present Madison Bumgarner with the World Series MVP trophy, it’s clear that he could use our help.

It turns out that Chevy received far more attention for his bungled presentation. The video went viral and resulted in national coverage of the presentation and appearances for Wilde on late night shows like Letterman and Fallon.

But you don’ want to rely on a poor presentation going viral in order sell trucks.

I’d be happy to help. For a fee, of course.

This moment also illustrates something that I tell my Speak Up students all the time:

Nervousness is your friend. As long as you’re not so nervous that you can’t speak (which nearly happens to Wilde), nervousness can be endearing. It can make the audience instantly love you and want you to succeed. They root for you from your very first word.

Nervousness is a signal to an audience that you are one step away from being one of them. It could just as easily be you sitting in a seat, listening instead of speaking. That is a powerful connection that can serve a speaker well.

A storyteller who I greatly respect once told me that my greatest challenge in storytelling is my lack of nerves. “No one loves you when you start speaking,” he said. “You stand there like you own the place. So you have to have a great story every time.”

I think there’s some truth in that statement. I also think it’s why Rikk Wilde was so embraced by the American public. People could see themselves in Wilde. They presumed that they might perform similarly in the national spotlight. It made Wilde appear authentic and endearing.

In the end, it all worked out. Chevy got more press than it ever expected. They probably sold more trucks as a result.

This time.

But still, it would be nice for Chevy’s public figures to be able to speak easily and extemporaneously at times, too.

I’m waiting for you to call, Chevy. I’m ready to help.

What were the three most important decisions of your life?

A recent Quora question asked, “What were the three most important decisions of your life?”

I’ve been debating this question for almost a month, and I have finally settled on three. While many decisions could have occupied these three spots, I decided to favor the toughest and most unlikely decisions of my life rather than the ones that were easy and obvious.

For example, deciding to marry Elysha is probably the most important decision of my life, but it was barely a decision. Who wouldn’t want to marry Elysha if given the chance? It was a no-brainer.

Instead, I found three extremely important decisions in my life that could have gone either way and changed the course of my life forever.

1. Maintaining my innocence when charged with grand larceny and embezzlement.

While being questioned about a crime that I did not commit, the police almost had me convinced to confess to the crime rather than risk a lengthy prison sentence. I spent a minute in a mop closet pondering that decision and ultimately decided to stick to the truth, but it was a close call. The police can apply a great deal of pressure in these moments, particularly when you are a 19 year-old kid without any parents, any money or an attorney.

The result was a brief period of homelessness, 18 months spent working 80 hours a week at two different jobs in order to pay a $25,000 attorney’s bill, a permanent case of post traumatic stress disorder as a result of an armed robbery, and a trial where I was found not guilty.

Had I confessed and accepted their plea deal, I could not have become a teacher. 

2. Choosing West Hartford Public Schools over Newington Public Schools.

In the summer of 1999, my hometown of Newington, CT had offered me a permanent position as third grade teacher in one of their elementary schools. I was asked for a day to consider their offer, but the wait time was merely perfunctory. I was taking the job.

During that 24 hour period, I received a call from a principal in West Hartford requesting an interview. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I agreed to speak to him that day. Three hours later, he had offered me a one year position covering a second grade teacher on maternity leave.

The permanent position in Newington would have been the wise and sensible choice. It was in my hometown and would provide me with long-term stability in a time when teaching jobs were hard to find. But I was impressed by the principal, his commitment to children, and his support for the arts. After much debate, I decided upon the one year position in West Hartford, and 16 years later, I am still teaching in the same school.


That decision changed my life. I met my wife while teaching at that school school. I met five of my closest friends while teaching, including the principal, who has since retired but remains one of my closest friends today. I met my son’s and daughter’s god parents while teaching at that school. Many of my former students are my children’s favorite babysitters, and one of my first students is our primary babysitter and like a member of the family.

I was given the freedom to create a classroom environment that placed reading, writing, and theater at its core, and I have developed a teaching philosophy that has led to much success in my field. I was named Teacher of the Year in West Hartford and was a finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

I started playing golf, a game that I love beyond all others, thanks to the friends I met at that school, and ultimately wrote a book about it. 

The school’s community, teachers, students, and parents, have become a second family to me. When my job and my future were threatened several years ago, they rallied around me in ways I could have never expected.

3. Saying yes when my best friend asked me to start a wedding DJ company with him.

In 1997, I was attending Trinity College and Saint Joseph's University fulltime, working on degrees in both English and elementary education. I was also managing a McDonald’s restaurant fulltime and tutoring students part-time at the college’s writing center. I was writing for the college’s newspaper. I was the Treasurer of the Student Senate.

I was busier than I had ever been in my life.

Then Bengi called and asked if I wanted to be a wedding DJ, even though we had no experience or equipment or knowledge of the industry, and I said yes.

Seventeen years later, we remain in business. I have entertained at more than 400 weddings in that time. The DJ company has provided me with much needed income through the lean times of my life.


I met one of my best friends while working as the DJ at his wedding, and that friendship has led to me becoming a Patriots season ticket holder. That same friend led me back into writing when I had given up hope on ever becoming a novelist and professional writer.

I would not have a writing career today had it not been for him. 

I unknowingly gained 17 years of public speaking experience, which allowed me to step into the world of storytelling and public speaking three years ago with unexpected ease and success. I won my first Moth StorySLAM in large part to the experience I gained as a DJ.


I have since competed in 24 Moth StorySLAMs in New York and Boston and won 12 of them. I’ve told stories for Main Stage shows and GrandSLAM championships and many other storytelling organizations in New York, Boston and Hartford. I would not be the storyteller and speaker I am today had I not worked for almost two decades as a wedding DJ.

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Telling stories for The Moth led to the founding of Speak Up, the Hartford-based storytelling organization that my wife and I founded last year. In a little over a year, we have produced eight sell out shows, launched a series of storytelling workshops, and have now been approached by outside venues, asking us to take our show on the road.


The DJ business also led to me becoming ordained as a minister. I have presided over almost 20 weddings, one baptism, and three baby naming ceremonies in that time.

I’d love to hear your three most important decisions if you’re willing to share. Post in the comment sections. Send me an email. Contact me through social media.