Public Speaking Body Language Part Four: Gestures

This is the fourth article in an eight-part series covering the most important elements of body language for public speaking. Click here to read the entire series.

Many people tell me that they were instructed at some point in their early lives never to gesture when they speak. A few were even taught – often by grade school teachers – that gesturing while speaking is downright rude.
That’s terrible guidance.

According to body language experts Allan & Barbara Pease, “Using hand gestures grabs attention, increases the impact of communication, and helps individuals retain more of the information they are hearing.”

In other words, gesturing doesn’t only help you look more natural, but actually enhances the impact of your words.

We see that regularly in our presentation training sessions. When we encourage trainees to incorporate gestures into their delivery, their words get better. The physical act of gesturing helps them form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences.

To gesture effectively, keep your hands “unlocked” at all times – no clasped hands, hands behind your back, hands in pockets, or arms crossed in front of you. Those closed positions are typically perceived as arrogance or defensiveness, and they lower the audience’s ability to absorb and retain your information.

If you’re having a tough time gesturing naturally during a speech, try speaking about 10 – 15 percent louder than usual (as you read in the energy section, that will also help boost your energy level). As parents know all too well, it’s impossible to yell at your children while your hands and arms are frozen – an increase in volume helps to reanimate motionless hands.

The larger your audience, the larger your gestures should be. If you’re speaking to a crowd of 500 people, you can’t rely upon subtle facial expressions to make your points, since no one will see them (except for the people seated in the front rows). Therefore, you’ll need to make your key points in more obvious ways, such as using big, sweeping gestures. For smaller crowds, the opposite is true. Use smaller gestures, and feel free to use more subtle expressions (e.g. an ironically raised eyebrow) or movements.

The most effective gestures are purposeful and controlled. Instead of keeping your hands in constant motion, hold your gestures for a second or two.

Keep in mind that gesturing is different than fidgeting. One thing that will help you avoid unhelpful fidgeting is to avoid holding papers, PowerPoint remote controls, pens, or anything else while you talk. (If you need to use a PowerPoint remote, place it on a table in between slides so you’re not holding it throughout your entire talk.)

By removing objects from your hands, you’ll not only remove a potential audience distraction, but will be perceived as a more open (and confident) speaker.

Click here to read the entire series, which covers energy, tone, eye contact, gestures, posture, where to stand, how to interact with PowerPoint, and voice.

My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read more about the book here