Have you watched La La Land? I haven’t, but I know Emma Stone is in it.

(Image via Wikipedia)

She’s been in many good movies lately but what I didn’t know was that she used to get panic attacks and suffered from debilitating shyness. At the age of seven, her parents put her through therapy to reduce it. Despite this, she persisted through—who can forget the best lip sync session of all time with 78 million views on Youtube and counting.

In that clip, shy is the last word you can describe her performance with. What makes the lip sync looks so real is that she knows where the cameras are. She works the cameras, she knows how it’ll look to the audience.

Knowing how you look on camera is essential for any stage performer, including public speakers! It does not lie, and it’s the end result that the audience see. It gives real-time feedback, and feedback is very important in deliberate practice to improve public speaking.


Watching yourself is a form of deliberate practice

The term deliberate practice was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2011 best-seller Outliers, and then pushed further by the likes of Cal Newport and finally by the original researcher Anders Ericsson himself in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016).

In the book, Ericsson describes an unusual type of practice usually done by world-class athletes as deliberate practice. It has a well-defined, specific goals. It is focused and involves feedback. One of the easiest ways to determine whether something is deliberate practice is whether it requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.

Getting out of one’s comfort zone.

I imagine you’re cringing while reading this, which also happens to be a common reaction when you watch yourself on camera for the first time! It’s uncomfortable because we see our flaws much more clearly as an audience. And yet, watching yourself on video is a critical component in deliberate practice because it gives you feedback on how you speak and how you move. The way you act on the video is the way people see you in real life, and therefore this is the version everyone sees, and the version you want to improve.


Why people cringe: a primer

When you watch your own video for the first time, the discomfort will be caused by a cognitive dissonance between the predetermined ideal you have of yourself and the reality. The reality of how you look and sound is made up of many versions, many angles. But nevertheless, the version you have in your mind is most likely different to what was captured by the camera. To illustrate this, let’s look at the photos below:
(Image via people.com)

Paris Hilton’s face is asymmetric, her left eye is much smaller than her right, so when you flip the photo, it looks weird. It’s a different version than the one we are used to. Flip your own selfie, and you will also find yourself cringing.


What can we do to reduce it?

Olympic athletes watch their own performance all the time because this is one of the fastest ways to improve using material they already have. The technique I would suggest involves recording yourself, and watching it multiple times until you don’t dread it as much anymore.

First, you should read this sentence and record yourself using a mobile phone:

Hi, my name is <name>. Today, I am fearless. Words and thoughts come easily to me and I enjoy hearing the sound of my own voice. I’m confident and comfortable. My words will have a positive effect on other people. I have so much to say and I can’t wait to practice this new skill of public speaking!2

(The passage above came from was taken from 20 Affirmations for Public Speaking with Ease.)

If you don’t like the sentence above, just record your own script for about 30 seconds. You don’t need to look at the camera, no need for it to be perfect. Mine looks and sounds horrible too.


Expect it to be weird

Now, we just need to watch it. Urgh, expect it to be weird. That’s right. Like Gollum below.


(Video via [WingNut Films / justlotsofgifs.tumblr.com])

Compare yourself with Gollum. Aren’t you less weird than him? Good.

Download the video you’ve just recorded to your computer, and make sure you watch it with a good set of speakers. Watching and hearing it directly on your phone is not a good idea. The phone speaker tends to not have enough bass to do justice to your real voice – everyone, even Stevie Wonder, sounds quite pitchy when bad speakers are involved.

Having a glass of wine before this exercise would help too . Bring some cookies or popcorn if it still does not feel festive enough. To deal with your inner critic, you can go through Buzzfeed’s list of 51 Thoughts You Have When You See Yourself on Video. You are not alone in thinking those self-sabotaging thoughts. Everyone goes through the same thing.


It takes persistence

Doing this once is great, but to reduce it more, you will need to set a schedule to listen to your video repeatedly. Use this as a tool to analyse what you would like to focus on next in your public speaking. All it takes is a little time, and persistence.

Imagine a different universe where Emma Stone didn’t solve her problem. She wouldn’t have improved much as an actor, and there wouldn’t be a La La Land. Scott Berkun in Confessions of a Public Speaker says:

If you are too scared to watch yourself speak, how can you expect your audience to watch you?