Monday, November 11, 2013

Gestures? Keep 'em Real

"What do I do with my hands?" is one of the most common questions I hear from those I teach and coach in public speaking. They are sometimes disappointed by my initial answer, because I tell them to "do what comes naturally", at least as a starting point. They would prefer some definitive answer. They want me to say "do this and that and you will be perfect", as if there were some magical hand dance that if learned, will make them a great speaker.

I am not a fan of choreographing gestures. All too often they look contrived and mechanical, more likely to attract our attention than genuinely support the message. And attracting attention to themselves is something gestures should not do. You want the audience's focus on what you are saying, not on your hand movements.

But I say "as a starting point" because what "comes naturally" to some might be to put their hands in their pockets or play with their hair! Once I have seen them speak I will frequently give specific suggestions, but first I need to get a sense of their nonverbal communication style and how it jibes with their verbal message.

Some people are naturally animated and gesture more than might be ideal, but it works for them. Others rarely use their hands, but when they do it is effective, reflecting a less animated personality type. Folks like this need little coaching. Some might try to tune down the former, and force more gesturing on the latter, but at what cost?

It is my professional opinion that authenticity is what people respond to. Far too many fine speakers have been turned into mechanical shadows of their true selves by consultants touting "power gestures" and the like. In the process they lose the natural quality that truly great speakers possess.

That said, distracting gestures--particularly repetitive ones--must be avoided. I have seen it all in my career. I have seen people decide that during the presentation would be a good time to clean their ears, pop a pimple on their arm, or scratch their privates repeatedly. I kid you not.

When in doubt, it's okay to keep your hands at your sides. That is so much better than folding your arms, or clasping your hands either in front or in back of you. Also, you want to avoid gesturing below the waist. You want to guide the eye toward your upper half, not your lower half.

Video recording is the key to fine tuning the natural style of the speaker. When the speaker sees what he or she does when speaking naturally, the video makes any necessary "repair" obvious and fairly simple to change and master. They just need an honest, knowing eye to help guide them to what works best for them.

So when it comes to gestures, don't look for magic tricks. Record yourself doing what comes naturally. Talk it over with a pro, and just polish it up a bit. You should be spending far more time analyzing your audience and putting together a killer message than you do on gesturing. The goal is always to be yourself, at your best. Run away from people who try to remake you, they will lose the real you in the process.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work, see Semiosphere Consulting.