Mirror Neurons: A Powerful Speaking Tool

by Steve Evans | Blog

Smile and the Audience Smiles with You

There I was in Santa Monica at the offices of Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless and low-income individuals find and retain employment. I had been brought in to help the staff of 20 or so counselors become better communicators and presenters.  I was at the point in my “presentation on presentations” where I describe the power of mirror neurons.  I was attempting, for the first time, to recreate an exercise outlined in Shawn Achor’s great book, The Happiness Advantage where he demonstrates the concept of mirror neurons by breaking the audience into pairs.  Person #1 is to show absolutely no emotion for a period of 7 seconds. Person #2 is to simply look Person #1 in the eyes and smile the biggest smile they can smile. Can Person #1 maintain their emotionless state or will they break and return their partner’s smile? Shawn has done this experiment in various groups, hundreds of times all over the world and the result is always the same.  Around 85% of the time, Person #1 cannot refrain from returning their partner’s smile.  Would it work in my presentation at Chrysalis?  I began the count down, 7, 6, 5 and before I knew it, the room erupted in smiles and laughter.  It worked because of the power of mirror neurons.  Shawn uses this exercise to demonstrate how mirror neurons can help you spread The Happiness Advantage.  They have other uses, as well.

Another Tool in the Speaker’s Tool Kit

I don’t know who was the first person to intentionally use the power of mirror neurons in public speaking.  I first came across the term in Bill Hoogterp’s terrific book called, Your Perfect Presentation.  When I read about the concept, I thought I had found the recipe to the secret sauce or at least a key ingredient.  You mean I can control the way the audience feels by using something called mirror neurons?  Yes, that’s the idea.  As Bill outlines in his book, the original discovery took place back in the 90’s.

It happened at the University of Parma in Italy during a study being conducted by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti and a team of neurophysiologists.  They were trying to find out what part of the brain was activated when animals performed certain activities. So the story goes, one day in the lab, they strapped a big macaque monkey to a chair.  Electrodes were attached to his head with wires connected to a big bank of monitors.  A lab technician on the other side of the room had a bunch of peanuts on a tray.  When the experiment began, he walked over to the monkey and held out the tray.  Monkeys love peanuts so, of course, the monkey reached to grab one and the monitor went “beep”. All the scientists rushed over to look at the monitors and realized they had discovered the part of the brain that controlled the monkey’s arm when it reached for a peanut.

Giacomo Rizzolatti

What Happened Next was the Real Discovery

The scientists were very excited about all this but what happened next was even more exciting and the real discovery.  It may have been close to lunch time or maybe the lab technician was just hungry, we don’t know but when he took the tray back to the other side of the room, he reached for a peanut and the monitor went “beep”. What? The lab tech wasn’t connected to the monitors and the monkey had been perfectly still. He reached out, again, and, once again, the monitor went “beep”.  The monkey was looking around as if to say, “It’s not me.  I’m not doing anything” and the monkey wasn’t doing anything.  He was simply observing the lab technician reach for the peanut and was mentally mirroring the activity and that was setting off the monitor.  The scientists had accidentally discovered mirror neurons. The same mirror neurons we all have as mammals.  The same mirror neurons that can help you win at the Sport of Speech.

What are Mirror Neurons?

According to Wikipedia, “A mirror neuron, or cubelli neuron, is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer was the one acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.”  As animals, we all have mirror neurons and that’s good news.

We see examples of mirror neurons in action all the time.  The most common being when we are with someone who yawns.  We suddenly feel the urge to yawn, as well, even though we aren’t particularly sleepy.  Or, have you ever been watching a golf match on TV when a player tries to sink a 30-foot putt?  As the ball travels to the cup, it looks like it’s a little to the left of the cup, no, make that to the right, no, it’s left.  As you watch, you find yourself leaning left, then right, then left, again. Relax.  Whatever contortion you put yourself through, you’re not going to affect the path of that golf ball but we do it involuntarily because of mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons Can be a Powerful Tool for a Speaker

Speakers need to lead an audience both emotionally as well as intellectually. When we give a speech, we’re actually giving 4 speeches, simultaneously; verbal, vocal, visual and emotional.  Or, to put it another way, every speech is a combination of the following elements:


      How you say the words

      How you look when you say the words

      And finally, how you feel when you say the words

Mirror neurons give you the power to lead the audience emotionally.  Ask yourself how you want the audience to feel and behave?  You need to feel and behave that way first.  The audience will mirror your emotions and actions. If you want the audience to be relaxed, comfortable, open and enthusiastic (and who doesn’t?) you, as the speaker, need to be relaxed, comfortable, open and enthusiastic…first.

Think about the sayings we’ve heard all our lives. Enthusiasm is contagious. Smile and the world smiles with you.  You get out of life what you put into it.  Mirror neurons may be why these things are true and I think they are.  We all know people that we love to be around.  They’re fun and they make us feel good.  They create a positive environment.  And, we all know people who walk through life with a black cloud over their head.  If you want to know how horrible their life is, just ask them. They would love to tell you.  Is life really that bad for this person or are they simply creating a negative, toxic reality by broadcasting a barrage of negativity and people around them are simply mirroring those emotions

Here’s a Little Experiment

Try being as negative, as possible tomorrow.  Walk around in a foul mood.  Rail against the traffic on your way to work.  Talk about the horrible weekend you had or how you are dreading the week ahead.  Really get into the negativity and see how others around you mirror those emotions. See how fast your morning becomes one big, negative, pity party.

The next morning, greet everyone like a positive, enthusiastic, ray of sunshine. Notice how quickly they mirror your emotions and how this creates a positive environment.

It Starts With You

How do you want the audience to feel and act? You have to feel and act that way, first.  The speaker is the one that creates the mood and the reality in the room.  Remember, smile and the audience will smile with you.

Here’s a Practice Tip:

When you are working on a speech, think about how you want the audience to feel and behave at various times throughout your performance.  When you are rehearsing a speech or presentation, grab your phone and record a video.  Then, play back your speech with the sound off.  How are you leading the audience emotionally and visually? Make notes in your script indicating where you can improve the visual and emotional aspects of your delivery.  Make the changes you need to make so you communicate on every level and win at the Sport of Speech.

Steve Evans, Speech Enthusiast




Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Follow Us