Choosing a mentor

Five Criteria for Choosing a Mentor

by Doug Stevenson 2004
Story Theater Retreat graduate, author of Parent as Coach

“A coach is not just a cheerleader, but one who helps an individual explore his or her potential and supports them in moving on to bigger and better things.”
Diana Haskins

Be careful who you listen to. There are people who will willingly and eagerly give you advice that can damage you and stifle your progress. You need to develop a filter so that you can differentiate between those who know what they are talking about and those who are trying to dump their limitations on you.

This has been brought home to me by numerous students who have attended my Story Theater Retreat. Their intention is to move to the next level of expression and power through storytelling. They have usually gone as far as they can on their own and recognize the need for coaching. In some cases, they are just beginning their speaking careers and want to learn “the good stuff” right up front. In any case, they are all ready, willing and able to grow and expand.

Time after time, old wounds and bad advice get in their way. As I’m coaching them to get out of their way and serve their message, walls of negative comments and destructive advice stand between them and their freedom of expression.

“But Doug, someone told me to keep my arms to my sides.”

“I’ve been told that if I cry in my story, I’m being manipulative.”

“As a child, my mother used to tell me that a lady never raises her voice.”

“Somebody told me that the audience doesn’t care about you, only your message.”

Do you recognize a theme here? All of these comments stop you from being authentic. How can you develop your own unique style if you’re guarding yourself against anything real? If you listen to bad advice, you’ll end up looking and sounding like every amateur speaker on the planet.

I owe all of my growth as a professional actor and speaker to what I have learned from others. It started when I was 19 years old with Ted Liss, my first acting teacher in Chicago. My coaching style is a direct result of his amazing instruction. He taught acting by empowering his students. I never experienced a hint of negativity in his presence.

Ted encouraged me forward and helped me develop my uniqueness. He supported and nurtured me and created a safe place to take risks. He recognized my gift long before I knew what it was and gave it wings. When necessary, he prodded me to expand into areas of expression that he knew I was capable of, but I was too scared to explore. In the end, I felt honored and empowered. I felt like I was special and talented.

Over the next 16 years I studied with many teachers and acted under the guidance of many directors. The best of them were like Ted Liss. They expanded me. The worst, and there were a few really bad ones, tried to inhibit me, to clip my wings. One in particular did a really nice job of humiliating me in front of the entire acting class. I didn’t learn anything from him as an actor. I learned a lot from him about how not to be a coach.

If you want to accelerate your progress and step up to the next level of freedom of expression, you will need a mentor / coach. Here are five criteria for a choosing a good mentor / coach.

1. You instinctively feel good about him or her. Your gut tells you “this is right.”

2. They have solid references. Check them out. Call their past students. Ask a lot of questions and then, follow your instincts.

3. They now make, or have in the past made, a full time living doing what they teach. If they have not been able to prove expertise in the marketplace, they are teaching theory. Walk away.

4. You sense from their comments, and from the feedback you read and hear from other students, that they coach by empowerment. You believe that they will help you become a better “you.”

5. They are expensive. This may sound silly, but it’s true. The best charge more for their services than the rest. You get what you pay for. The marketplace always determines what someone is worth. If the coach you are interested in is charging and getting high fees, they have proven themselves in the marketplace.

Bonus: Interview your potential mentor / coach in person or on the phone. Do you like them? Do they speak your language? When you are finished speaking with them do you feel peaceful and secure or is there a knot in your stomach?

To become a truly authentic and amazing speaker – one that harnesses the power of influence over others, you must achieve mastery on two levels. The first is self-mastery. The second is message mastery. All truly great speakers model self mastery as well as mastery of their message. There must be a balance.

Self-mastery leads to an authentic and unique style. As someone who makes a living speaking, I know that style counts. It counts for a lot. In fact, when two speakers have similar content (message), it is style that wins the day.

In conclusion, be careful who you listen to. Take your counsel from those in the know, not those who keep telling you NO. Say yes to yourself.


Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at or 800.573.6196