What is gesture, and why do we worry about it at all? It’s nothing more than an add-on, right? Something perhaps nice to have, but unessential to the point of our presentation.
The fact is that you cannot separate sincerity from your appearance. You can’t disaggregate movement from your inflection, from your volume, from your nuance. And you cannot separate your words from gesture.
So let’s add the power of gesture to our words to achieve superior messaging.
What’s a Gesture?
A wave of the hand.
A snap of the finger.
A stride across the stage with arms outstretched to either side.
A scratch of the chin.
An accusatory finger.
A balled fist at the proper moment.
These are all gestures that can either enhance or destroy your presentation. Yes, I said destroy.
Professional presentation coaches understand that most of the information transmitted in a show is visual. This is a result of the presence of the speaker. An audio recording of a talk is not nearly as powerful as an actual live presentation. Executive coach Lynda Paulson is spot-on when she notes the power of gestures to persuade an audience . . . or to alienate an audience, because “at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal. It’s what people see in our eyes, in our movements and in our actions.”
Gestures provide energy, and accent. They add power, emphasis, and meaning to our words. Throughout the history of public speaking, the finest communicators have known the importance of the proper gesture at the proper time. Entire books, in fact, have been written about gesture and the power it can bestow, but most of this knowledge resides in the recesses of libraries waiting to be rediscovered. See, for example, Edward Amherst Ott’s classic 1902 book How to Gesture.
Gesture is too important to leave to chance. Certainly too important to dismiss with the airy “move around when you talk.” Let’s understand exactly what it means.
In 1928, Joseph Mosher defined gesture in a way that guides us even today: “Gesture may be broadly defined as visible expression, that is, any posture or movement of the head, face, body, limbs or hands, which aids the speaker in conveying his message by appealing to the eye.”
Gesture in your presentation should be natural. It should flow from the meaning of your words and the meaning you wish to convey with your words. We never gesture without reason or a point to make. Typically, the emotion and energy in a talk leads us to gesture. Without emotion, gesture is mechanical. It is false. It feels and looks artificial.
Communicating Without Words
Gesture is part of our repertoire of non-verbal communication. You have many arrows in the quiver of gesture from which to choose, and they can imbue your presentation with power. And on rare occasion, can imbue your presentation with majesty of epic proportions. Yes, I said “majesty of epic proportions.”
Proper gesture increases your talk’s power and lends emphasis to your words. In fact, gesture is essential to take your presentation to a superior level, a level far above the mundane. You limit yourself if you do not gesture effectively as you present.
As with every craft, there is a correct way to gesture . . . and a wrong way. Without a clear notion of how gesture can enhance our presentations, we are left with aimless ejaculations that can distract and leech away the power of our message and the audience’s confidence in our competence. Accordingly, here are a few of the more common examples of bad gesturing involving just your fingers. These are so common that I cannot but believe that someone, somewhere is training folks in these oddities, and it’s the equivalent of self-sabotage.
Control Those Fingers!
Under no circumstances engage in “finger play.” This is a habit many people develop unconsciously as they try to discover what to do with their hands. You know you should do something with your appendages, but no one has told you what. So you develop these unconscious motions. Many different activities come under the heading of “finger play.”
Tugging at your fingers. I suspect that we all carry a “finger-tugging” gene embedded deep in our DNA that is suppressed only with difficulty.
Bending your fingers back in odd manner. This is a ubiquitous movement, universally practiced. It consists of grasping the fingers and bending them back, as if counting something, and then holding them there for a spell. It’s almost a finger-tug, but more pronounced.
Waving your hands around with floppy wrist movement. This is not only distracting, but the wobbly wrist action creates a perception of weakness and uncertainty.
Simply by eliminating these commonplace pathologies from your own presenting, you strengthen by subtraction.
The Power of Gesture
Why would you want to “gesture?” Aren’t your words enough? To add force to your points. To demonstrate honesty, decisiveness, humility, boldness, even fear. A motion toward the door, a shrug, a lifted eyebrow – what words can equal these gestures?
While its range is limited, gesture can carry powerful meaning. It should carry powerful meaning; this form of nonverbal language predates spoken language. Said James Winans in 1915:
Gesture, within its limitations, is an unmistakable language, and is understood by men of all races and tongues. Gesture is our most instinctive language; at least it goes back to the beginning of all communication when the race, still lacking articulate speech, could express only through the tones of inarticulate sounds and through movements.
Imagine the powerful communication you attain when, at the proper moment, your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine. You attain a powerful communication moment when your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine and align with the message and your visual aids to wash over your audience, suffusing them with emotion and energy. Be spare with your gestures and be direct. Make them count.
Look for more detailed analysis on the gestures available to you in this space in coming weeks.