It’s common advice given to a lot of speakers: practice in front of a mirror. So they can see how they ‘perform’ and improve their body language. It’s a very logical way of thinking. In fact, it’s in the advice of many books and courses. Intended to make you look at yourself in real time and make instant adjustments. But is this the right way of thinking?
I believe it is a completely wrong approach. It can even lead to the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish.
Why do people use a mirror?
“But wait, what are you saying? Are you saying that the advice others are giving is false?” Well, as with many things, my answer will be: that depends. It depends on how you ‘read’ the advice.
Let’s look at some of the reasoning behind the tip that you should practice in front of a mirror.
“It helps you see what you look like”
This is true, of course, you can see yourself. As I point out below though, it’s not your real self. But the essence of the advice here is good: seeing yourself will make that you can improve yourself. The question is if that has to be a mirror… But I’ll get back to that.
“It helps with practicing eye contact”
Some say that a mirror will help you look at your audience instead of at your notes. Where I agree that you shouldn’t look at your notes, I doubt that the mirror will have that effect. Eye contact is important. So you have to train yourself to look at different people.
I think this advice comes from the understanding that you need to practice without notes. But there are many better ways of doing that.
Why is practicing in front of the mirror wrong?
So why do I advice against it? There are several reasons you shouldn’t do this.
1. It’s not real!
Even though you see yourself in the mirror, and the reflection is real, this is not reality. Practicing in front of the mirror doesn’t reflect what happens in real life. Because for one, in real life, you don’t see yourself. If you want to practice, you want to get as close as possible to the actual speaking experience. When you see a reflection of yourself, you will act on it right away. Change the way you look. But that is how you look in the mirror, not on stage.
You will not even see how you act on stage because you are focusing on your reflection. What you see is not what you get. This might also mean that you change things that don’t need changing!
2. It’s a habit you need to change, not a moment
When you look in the mirror, and you see something wrong, you will change it. But then the change has happened and you don’t think about it anymore. Where in fact, it’s a habit. So you need to address it over and over. Looking in the mirror fools you into thinking you ‘fixed’ your body language.
3. The mirror will make you focus on gesture, not story
When you practice in front of the mirror, you are focusing on how your movement and gestures. You will see every movement that goes wrong. You will see every little thing. Your focus will be on your smallest facial expressions and gestures. This is distracting. Which then leads to too much emphasis on those little things and you will lose the focus on your story.
You want to focus on your story, not your gestures.
4. Your mirror image might make you nervous
Looking at yourself in the mirror when practicing might actually make you nervous. When you look at yourself, you emphasize what goes wrong. You are much more aware of what goes wrong. Therefore increasing the likely hood of it actually going wrong.
If you see things going wrong you will start thinking about these things more and more. And that will make you nervous.
What to do?
Is it always wrong to practice in front of the mirror? I would say yes in most cases. But, like with everything, there are exceptions. If you practice early enough, it will most likely not make you nervous. And you can do that, but only to practice certain gestures. To see if certain gestures work or not. Otherwise, I would advise against it.
But if it’s something that works for you, do it!
There are two other things you can do that will give you a much better insight into how you are presenting yourself:
Practice in front of an audience.
Find colleagues or other people to see you talk. They can give you feedback as well. Remember to ask them for specific feedback on your body language and not on your story.
Grab a video camera (or your phone) and record yourself. Position the camera so that it has a broad view of how you move (which show your full body). Watch the recording, write down the two or three biggest things you want to change, and do another practice run.
Just be careful rehearsing in front of the mirror. It might not have the outcome you were hoping for!