Public Speaking Tips for Gestures
There are three types of gesture:
(i) gestures that help the audience hear
(ii) gestures that help the audience see
(iii) gestures that help the audience feel
And we will look at each.
The key connection though is between the gestures and the voice.
Whenever I have been asked to assess a speaker on how well they use their gestures, very often I will look away from them and just listen. I found that I could ‘hear’ the gestures.
Gestures are not something that one adds after the speech has been composed ‘to make the speaker look more professional’. Gestures are an integral part of the communication.
If the gestures are properly integrated into the presentation, they will grow out of the words spoken.
Their purpose is to support the voice and the meaning of the words.
They should not be an add-on or afterthought.
I have seen many speakers that have added gestures to their speech and have then probably practised repeatedly in front of the mirror and that never quite works. It always looks false; sometimes even patronising!
When a speaker says:
‘It was big!’
the audience should recognise a gesture as a natural expression of the word ‘big’:
- there will be an emphasis in the way the word is spoken that seems to demand physical support,
- the gesture seems to grow out of the word,
- the word and the gesture seem to belong together rather than seeming forced together.
When the gesture has been consciously added afterwards in the mirror, it can come across as unnatural, wooden and self-conscious and often feel out of proportion to how the word has been delivered.
Music teachers would often characerise a common student approach of:
’First, I learn the notes – and then I will add the expression.’
The notes are already an expression, so right from the beginning we need to be aware of what we are trying to express and how we want to express it.
Sometimes in a training course – and this might sound painful, but it is done with love(!) – I might record a speaker and then play the recording back to them with the volume switched off.
Often they would be standing with their arms folded, clasped, behind their back, or in their pockets and I would simply say:
‘Look at that speaker. How interesting do you think their voice is?’
and the answer is obvious – ‘Not very.’
No gestures usually equals no interesting voice.
11 Tips for gestures
3 types of gesture (plus a fourth that you should avoid)
Gestures to help the audience hear
This is when you allow your gesture to support the word that you want to emphasise. This might be a word that is connected to your key message, like for instance ‘trust’. If your message is that we need be more ‘trusting’, earn ‘trust’ or be ‘trustworthy’, each time you return to that word in its various forms, you will tend to add a little emphasis to it, as it is your key word and as you emphasise it you will quite naturally want to support its delivery with a clarifying or emphatic gesture to make it stand out.
The historian Simon Schama is often very expansive with his gestures; they are an extension of the passion with which he speaks. I remember hearing him being interviewed on the radio. I could still ‘hear’ his arms waving and emphasising his words. Hence, many of our gestures are not executed to be seen but to help the audience more effectively to hear the key words and messages.
Other good types of words that intrinsically demand supporting gestures are words of emotion or passion:
I love; I adore; I detest.
It is hard to say these words without some added emphasis, which in turn requires a supporting action to help them to stand out.
Superlatives are also good words:
biggest; worst; clumsiest – they also seem to demand a level of vocal emphasis.
Gestures to help the audience see
We may not want to be too literal here, for reasons that I will give in a moment, but as long as we remember that the gestures are to support our words, we will probably get the balance right.
We can easily support spatial concepts with gestures:
‘I started right at the bottom and slowly moved up.’
‘We moved from here to here.’
‘It was just a small step.’
These can be literal or they can be metaphorical;
‘She had an enormous amount of patience.’
‘Last week. Next week.’ (Time = Space)
‘if you can grasp this concept.’
(The key is not to make the gesture more important than the word. You do not need to precisely mimic a grasping gesture, you just need a supportive movement that implies the meaning and supports the vocal emphasis in the delivery)
You can use your space to identify and separate groups of people:
I, you, we, they
are great words for gestures as you can make a clear emphatic division between ‘you out there’ and ‘me over here’
And you can use gestures to visualise simple idioms:
On the one hand…. On the other
Turnover (income, staff, ideas)
Gestures to help the audience feel
These usually involve placing hands on yourself or indicating to yourself:
‘personally I believe’
In the same way as one might blow a kiss, the implication is that the gesture to oneself is accessing a deep, personal or private feeling that one is about to share with the audience.
We do not want to overdo this one, but it can be very powerful at a specific moment when one wants to build an emotional bridge to the audience.
And one to avoid
I have implied this in #2. If the gesture is too literal it might come across as too obvious or slightly condescending.
I remember attending an event where a speaker came out and there was a chair already on the stage.
He talked to us about opportunity and how scary it can be to take that jump into a new experience.
He then demonstrated this by jumping off the chair. I remember thinking:
‘I know what a jump looks like!’
The gesture added nothing to the meaning of the words. It simply repeated them in a very obvious literal way. If I had been a pre-school child learning the meaning of the word ‘jump’, there might have been some value in demonstrating the word, but I was not!
The problem, I believe, was that rather than looking for a way to support the expression of the word jump, he was looking for a way to represent the word jump.
And we are back to the bathroom mirror:
‘It was big’
Is the accompanying gesture aiding the expression and delivery and therefore growing out of the word ‘big’ or is it a self-conscious literal representation of the word – to give the audience something to look at?
Stories are a wonderful shortcut to mastering gestures, because all the gestures I have highlighted so far, we do on a daily basis as we are talking with our friends. Therefore if we take the most natural form of expression, which is storytelling and use it on stage, we will come across as more natural as our gestures are more likely to spring from the content of the story, because:
In most stories there is an element of space:
- over the gate, through the park, in the cupboard
there is always an emotional element:
- I was devastated; best day of my life; it was hilarious
and there will probably be a message or key point that needs stressing:
- never talk to strangers; think before you speak; always set an alarm.
all of which will encourage natural supportive gestures.
Don’t overdo the gestures
Less is more in most aspects of public speaking. So therefore save your biggest most expansive gestures for the biggest most expansive ideas. The key to maintaining interest is to create contrast and variety. This is clearly true of the use of one’s voice and every bit as true for the use of gestures.
And of course if you first make the connection and then keep the connection between voice and gestures, then they will match.
Palms, not pointy!
Try to avoid pointing. It can feel aggressive. The famous recruitment poster from World War One had an image of Kitchener pointing out of the poster, looking us directly in the eye with the caption:
‘Your country needs you.’
The purpose of the poster was to make the citizen feel uncomfortable and so sign up to fight.
That may be a bit too overbearing for a speech (unless of course you want to assert yourself powerfully and make the listener feel uncomfortable). Therefore try to use open palms when indicating.
Palms also have the benefit of implying openness and honesty.
Think of someone standing with their arms spread and palms showing, maybe in a pleading pose, saying:
‘Would I lie to you?’
‘I have nothing to hide.’ (which is literally represented by the open hands displaying nothing in them.
Get your gestures quickly into the game
This is the exception to the general rule of:
- 'Don’t be too self-conscious or over-rehearsed.'
The opening moments of a presentation are when we feel most vulnerable and it may take a few moments to get comfortable. Therefore it is worth thinking about getting a couple of simple gestures into the opening, so that you do not come across as stiff. Once your hands are involved, they will more naturally become part of your delivery.
Bigger stage, bigger gestures
I hope this one is obvious; especially if you have made the gestures – voice connection. On a bigger stage you will need to project more and therefore have a bigger voice. If your gestures are supporting your words then a bigger voice will benefit from bigger gestures.
Gestures don’t stop with your hands
Remember that the whole body is involved in presenting. Even if most of the time that means having a good solid stance and your actions not distracting attention from what you are saying, there could still be moments when you could use a dramatic step, a nod of the head, open eyes wide in surprise or horror, or simply a big smile to engage and encourage your audience
An extra tip – and it is the same one as for many skillsets.
That does not mean memorise, as that might kill spontaneity in words and gestures.
Just go through the presentation repeatedly and allow it to flow. Note the good phrases that you could use again next time through and when a good supportive gesture makes the words stand out.
Look for words that would benefit from supporting gestures
Let the words lead the gestures
Tell stories and paint pictures