A man giving a presentation shuffles to his place at the front of the conference room. Hunched over, he clears his throat several times and nervously fidgets with his glasses. Thrusting his hands into his pockets and barely looking up from the table, he begins to speak in a thin, wavering voice. He says: “I am very excited to be here to present my hypothesis to you.”
What did his body language and gestures say before he began to speak? Did they match what he actually said? And, which is more believable? What he said or how he acted? (This is an example of Albert Mehrabian’s research into verbal versus non-verbal communications. Go here to read more.)
Put simply, non-verbal signals bring your words to life. This is a primary reason why good presenters put thought into their gestures and body language. Used properly, both will improve your messages by dramatizing what you’re say, as well as make your words more memorable. Moving objects (no surprise) also capture the eye, so another reason why body movement can keep the audience engaged. Packaged together, gestures will help your audience listen better. Need more proof? Gestures are also the primary way you express your personality to the audience – yet another way to connect and engage with your audience.
A gesture is any body movement that communicates a message, either to reflect or underscore a word or phrase, or in place of the words themselves. Gestures come from four areas:
- From your arms, particularly the hands and fingers
- From the head (such as facial gestures) and shoulders
- From your legs and feet, particularly how they use the floor
- From the entire body itself, such as its stance and poise
Gestures dramatize words in a number of ways. Imagine gestures which might demonstrate these words or phrases:
- “We discussed the document over and over.” “It happened yesterday.” “This information is fluff.” These gestures describe something.
- “First this happened, and then second this happened.” “Each step of the project builds upon the one before it.” “Any why would this be true?” These gestures add emphasis.
- “I was really angry.” “Our customers love how we ring them back within 24 hours of the problem.” “We were very confused.” These gestures suggest emotion.
- “Come over here.” “Tell me more about that.” “Can you give me an example?” These gestures prompt a response from the audience.
In other words, gestures should be precise, they should have a purpose, and they should be visible.
Another reason to gesture? Your audience spends more time watching your hands than any other part of your body – up to 40% versus watching your hands, compared to 25% spent watching your face and 35% watching everything else.
The key: You must be you … but only if you know how you are gesturing now.
Most people use their hands (somewhat) when they speak. That’s not to say they’re gestures suitable for presentations, or even if they’re “good” gestures. To begin, know how you currently gesture. Think about how your hands move when you talk, or even how you might use other parts of your body – a shrug, a head nod – to emphasis your words. If you don’t know, or want the most honest feedback, film yourself presenting for 10 minutes or longer. (The first minute or two you’ll be self-conscious, but the longer you talk the more your gestures will become normal or natural.)
When you see yourself gesture, ask yourself these questions:
Are my gestures distinct? Hand gestures are precise – meaning, your fingers are active and erect. Pick up a pencil, a tennis ball or anything small enough to fit in your hand. Look at how your hand is active. If you remove the objective, keep that same type of exactness in your fingers. Other gestures – a nod, shrug are the two most common body gestures – should also be that precise.
Speaking of holding things: don’t. Holding a pen or a remote control* when you
present means you aren’t allowing your hands to gesture naturally.
Where do my gestures start? Gestures start from two spots. They begin from where your hands are when your arms are loose and hanging at your side, or they begin from a mid-point when your elbows are bent and your hands together are in front of your belly button. When you finish a gesture, your hands should return to one of these two spots. Gestures do not begin from trouser pockets, from behind your back, or from a clasped/clenched hands in front of you.
Where do they occur? Gestures have an ideal zone, something I call the Box on the Body. (See the side diagram.) This box (in green) at the center of the body has four points: the two tips of your shoulders and the two points of your elbows. This is the most natural place for gestures. Gestures to the right or left of the box (in yellow) are fine, but are usually used for emphasis. Gestures above the box are OK if used for extreme emphasis. (Too many in this area can be exhausting to watch, or suggest you’ve had waaaay too much caffeine.) Gestures below the box – no surprise – should be avoided.
Are my gestures visible? There’s no point to a gesture if the audience can’t see. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Take off or remove anything that’ll distract your hands, like change in your pockets, jewelry or messy hair. (Bangles especially can live up to their name.) It’s funny, but people will also gesture behind their back or under the table. In a word, avoid.
Do I gestures when I’m seated? Presentations sitting down are tricky, mostly because your body is nearly 60% less dynamic. (Your body is concealed by the table. A folded body has less able to breathe naturally than a standing body. A body at rest is less interesting to watch than an upright figure.) The key is to keep your arms on the table. (Yes, you can put your elbows on the table, even if your mother is in the meeting.) Gesture by lifting from the table, make the gesture, then bring the arm and hand back to the table top.
How do other people gesture? When you watch other people talk, do they gesture? How? What gestures do they use? Build what I call a “gesture vocabulary” by being more sensitive to other types and styles of gestures. Don’t worry about doing it exactly. That’s not the point. Do it so it fits you. You can’t help but personalize it to you, making it your own.
Now, all that said, you can’t think about what your hands are doing when you’re presenting. Your focus should be on what you’re saying, with the gestures and body language emphasizing and underscoring your points. Gestures follow words, not the other ways around. Or, think of it this way: get more comfortable using your hands and body when you talk. So, when you actually present, it’ll be an extension of your personality, not a robotic performance.
Caveat #1: Are remote controls are bad? No, not if you allow your fingers to move naturally when you’re holding the remote. The key is to hold the remote control firmly in the cock of your hand, the webbed part of your hand between your thumb and index finger. (Anatomically, it’s known as the “thenar space.”) Use your thumb to keep the control in place, allowing your fingers to move naturally. If colleagues notice that the remote control is becoming a dead weight, then put it down. You don’t want one-sided gestures.
Caveat #2: A note
about culture. Perhaps more than eye contact and voice, gestures are filled with cultural meanings. An “OK” sign in the United States has a compltely different meaning in other countries. If you are presenting, either formally or informally in another country, I strongly suggest you read up on the different gestures in your visited country to ensure you know which gestures are appropriate, and to understand the gestures of your audience, hosts and guests.