I hate watching myself on video. I know I’m not alone. There’s actually some science behind why it’s so hard to watch yourself on video. But if you want to improve your speaking and presentation skills, watching yourself on video is important.
To keep my focus on what’s important and avoid getting distracted by irrelevant self-criticism, I have a checklist of five areas that I look at when watching my performance.
Although some of these things might seem specific to stand-up comedy, the general framework here applies to all talks and presentations.
(1) Mic Work
Mic work is its own set of skills: adjusting the height, removing it from the stand, holding it, moving the stand out of the way, using the stand as a prop. So many actions to practice and master.
Going into my first comedy show, I had a plan for the mic: I was going to leave it in the stand to start and remove it at a certain point in my set. Here’s what happened: the mic stayed in the stand the whole time.
The mic is another set of moving parts when I’m already trying to remember my set. It’s natural that this will get easier over time.
My show this week was better. I took the mic out of the stand at the start of my set. Although I never moved the stand completely out of the way, I made progress.
I may remember some of this when I get off stage, but watching it back on the video shows me what I did. It helps me track my progress over time.
(2) Working the Stage
Watching the video helps me see how I’m working the stage and engaging with the audience. How much of the stage do I want to use, and how much did I use? Was I frozen in place, or did I move around? Did I acknowledge people in the audience or not even notice they were there?
There’s a lot going on when you deliver to a live audience. You won’t remember everything accurately. The only way to know what you did is to watch it back.
In my first show, I had a plan to walk around the stage starting at a certain point in my set. That did not happen. I felt like I was a deer in headlights. I was glued to one spot on the stage. It was sensory overload; I forgot how to walk.
This is normal. It’s a new environment and my brain was focused on remembering my set and keeping within my time limit. I had no bandwidth left for movement.
I did better in my second performance. I moved around more, but I still used only a small portion of the stage.
(3) Body Language
Body language is a crucial component of meaning. Meaning is conveyed through a mix of words, tone, and physiology. If a joke doesn’t land, it could be a function of physiology as much as the writing.
Reading the transcript will tell me if the writing is bad, but I need to watch the video to see how I used my body.
What did I do with my hands? How was my posture?
What level of energy did I bring to my set? Was I projecting intensity or being mellow? Was my body language conveying the energy I wanted to deliver with the joke?
The turning point for Seth Myers on Late Night was when he shifted his monologue from standing in front of a curtain to him sitting behind the desk. He delivers best from that position and the material comes across better.
Body language is nuanced and is something we often don’t feel in the moment. The only way to see what you do is to watch it back on video.
Another thing I look at is where I focused. The best speakers and performers project their energy to all corners of the room. They can connect with people in the front row and the back row, on both sides of the stage.
I’ve been practicing this skill for over 30 years, ever since my bat mitzvah speech. It’s not easy to engage with all parts of the room.
In the middle of my first performance at Gotham, I noticed that I was mostly facing to my right. This is a bias I have noticed before when speaking, and I consciously work to correct it. (I think everyone has a natural bias to one direction.) Although I could see this, I was in an awareness gap: I couldn’t course correct in the moment.
I also was so concerned about seeing the red light that goes on when you have one minute left. The focus on the light took me out of eye contact with the audience.
In my second performance. I turned to my left more and I had more awareness of the audience.
These are things that will improve with time and practice. As with other subtle elements of the performance, they are also things that we don’t remember accurately. You have to watch the video back to see where you looked and what you need to improve.
(5) Entrance/Exit Mechanics
Another thing you can’t tell from reading the transcript and listening to the audio is how you entered and exited the stage. This relates to body language, but I’m realizing that it’s a separate category because it really sets the tone for the entire set.
- What was the energy I had when I came on stage?
- Was I high energy? Did I run onto the stage? Walk slowly?
- How did I approach the mic?
- How did I end the set?
- What was my energy when I left the stage?
Before my graduation show, Karen Bergreen, my stand-up comedy teacher, reminded us to “take a beat” before we start our set. I remembered to do that in my first performance, but not in the second performance.
As I see more comedians perform, I’ve started to notice how they handle their entrance and exits. Things like:
- whether they run onto the stage or move at a slower pace
- what they say when they are removing the mic from the stand: are they getting right into their set or saying thank you as they set themselves up
- the pause before they start: at what point do they start their actual set?
- when do they put the mic back into the stand: as they wrap up, or after they finish?
These are nuances I didn’t even consider before my first show, but as I practice my own act more, I watch stand-up with a different eye. I am seeing the nuances and learning how to incorporate it into my set.
The only way to see what I did and evaluate what’s working is to watch the video.
I made you a handy infographic for this!
Do you record video of your talks, presentations, or performances? What do you look for when watching them back? I’d love to hear any of your tips and tricks!