Contrary to some beliefs, practicing a speech in front of a mirror or watching a video of your speech are not the best ways to coach yourself to be a better speaker. Neither of these tactics produce true reflections of your ability, and focusing on your reflection invites as many hazards as benefits. Being aware of these training trip-ups is especially important if you have a limited amount of time to practice and perfect your speech.
Below are some of the biggest challenges of using mirrors and video as practice tools, as well as more effective alternatives.
What Do We See When We Look Into a Mirror?
Every time we pass a mirror or look in a shiny window or take a selfie, we’re trained to think about our appearance: Is my hair too ruffled? My shirt wrinkled? But despite this lifelong conditioning, many public speakers rely on mirrors when they practice, as if they can turn off that deep behavioral programming and ask instead, “Am I making my point effectively?”
Similarly, when my clients watch their speeches on video, often their first reaction is not “I should have reinforced my point on that slide,” but “my face looks tired” or “my collar is too tight.”
This disconnect between instinct and intention can make using mirrors, and in many cases video, a time-wasting training effort, especially for novice Toastmasters who have not yet perfected evaluating someone else’s speech, much less their own.
Be Aware of Internal Bias
When you use mirrors or video, you’re not looking at yourself as the audience would. A range of internal biases can distort that reflection. If you’re naturally a perfectionist, you’ll be too hard on yourself. If you lack confidence, your expectations may be too low. If you don’t like the way you look, chances are you won’t like the way you present.
You likely already know your voice sounds different to you than it sounds to others. Consider your image biased in the same way. I’ve given many speeches over the years and won national titles in speech competitions, but when I watch myself on video, I’m typically very unsatisfied. (Conversely, my mother is never disappointed.)
Use Video Judiciously
To be fair, video can be a useful training tool because you can pause and focus on specific visual skills, such as gesturing, eye contact, volume, and motion. Watching yourself on video also builds awareness of errors you might be committing unknowingly, enabling you to fine-tune your training. But realize that when you employ video, your internal biases can still dramatically impede your ability to judge your presentation objectively.
The other problem with video training is that it takes precious time away from actual rehearsal. When you capture yourself on video, you’ll naturally want to spend time watching it. But public speaking practice is only effective when you’re actually speaking, so that time might be better spent working on—not merely watching—your presentation.
Learn How to Self-correct
Ultimately, successful public speakers don’t need to be good self-evaluators as much as they need to be good self-correctors. Giving a few Toastmasters speeches will teach you more about identifying and improving your public speaking abilities than reading five books on public speaking. That’s because meaningful improvement doesn’t come only from seeing and knowing; it comes even more crucially from doing and correcting.
Seek out Toastmasters colleagues who know your strengths and weaknesses and can help you improve. Practice your speeches for them and nail down what skills you need to work on to make your presentation stronger. Accept their feedback and work it into your practice.
Your Toastmasters colleagues are your best public speaking resources because one, they represent your audience, and two, they know what to look for. By contrast, your reflection is not your audience, and has no more of a clue than you do.
Practice Out Loud
Practicing your speech in your head may help you memorize it, but it won’t improve your ability to deliver it because that involves your mouth too. You need to practice using both your mind and your mouth to convey your points effectively, which means practicing aloud.
Practice to a colleague, a friend, a child, a pet, or the wall—just not to a mirror. And, again, don’t feel like you absolutely must record and watch it on video. The most important practice is practice itself.
With enough meaningful practice, learning, and improvement, you’ll know your presentations are succeeding not because you see it with your own eyes, but because you’re confident in your ability to speak in public and in the presentational choices you make.
It will also be reflected in the eyes of your rapt audience, which should be all the reflection you’ll need.
Joel Schwartzberg is the senior director of strategic and executive communications for a U.S. national nonprofit; a presentation coach; and author of The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire Your Team and Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter. Follow him on Twitter @TheJoelTruth.