Speaking Tips – Gestures
I have always believed that in public speaking our gestures should be natural, spontaneous, and not thought about in advance. I know this goes a lot against what is taught by many speaker trainers, but that is how I believe it should be. So, if you are the type of person who generally throws your arms around a lot in normal one-on-one conversation, then you should simply forget about that aspect of yourself in public speaking and let your normal gesturing appear as it will. It will then not look contrived. On the other hand, if you’re a speaker who is normally more staid, more reserved in gesture, then there will be less gesture, for this is natural to you. What I’m saying here is you should forget gesture, lay it aside. Don’t think about it.
You will find, of course, that when you’re thinking those grand, all-embracing thoughts, your arms will open wide as you embrace both your audience and your grand vision at that time. This will come of itself. The only body language you need to watch out for, especially if you are a novice to public speaking, are those defensive gestures where an arm or arms is seen to be protecting you from your audience. Open up. Embrace your audience. The hand up in front of the mouth, the one arm across the chest and, worst of all, folded arms, even if only lightly clasped across the body, will detract. It will detract not only because it is seen as one indicating fear, but because it acts as a barrier between you and them.
We know that as beginners, we’re apt to wonder what to do with our hands when we speak. It seems that our arms are sticking out like wings and our hands are the size of tennis rackets. But those assumptions are largely our own. An evaluative Toastmasters audience, for example, who have had the subject of ‘Gestures’ instilled in them over and over, might be aware of your arms. Most audiences are not, at least consciously. So once again, forget about gestures.
In our normal conversation we visualize what we’re talking about. We supplement those visualizations with natural, spontaneous gestures. Watch any two people in conversation and you will see this. You will even see it when people are talking on a telephone. It is natural to human interaction. So don’t make a thing of it in public speaking and feel that it must be included as something ‘on top’ of our speaking. It isn’t.
In stage acting there is this thing called, the Time Line, where one is supposed to work the stage from one side to the other. If time is advanced, one moves to ones left – the audience then sees it as your moving to the right…the same way a story would unfold if you were reading a book. If you then go back ‘into the past’ in your story up on stage, you’re supposed to move back the other way. You go back in time by moving to your right – and therefore to your left in the eyes of the beholding audience. You can even point at the floor to indicate you’ve moved back.
I doubt the veracity of this. No, I’m not saying it’s wrong. But if it appears in the slightest way contrived and draws the audience’s attention to it, then it is certainly not conducive to making the speech any better. It will, in fact, detract from it. I have been speaking to audiences, telling stories, and replicating dialogue between two people for decades without the slightest recourse to time lines. To this day, I’ve yet to hear anyone say that my speeches or stories could have been improved by moving to the left or right – except by Toastmasters and speakers who have been theatre- trained. Most people do not notice it. So is it of value?…
We know that words alone are never enough. That is why the audio-only recording lacks full impact. We know that DVD’s which show the physicality of the presenter, our body and its natural language, the gesture, and our face with its expressions, is far more impressive. Only the actual live performance with the person in the room adding that indefinable something extra- the hidden energy that melds with the energy of the audience – is better. And, of course, the gestures are there, too.
In Toastmasters we’ve all seen speakers whose gestures are as repetitive and boring as watching a ship’s reciprocating engine roll over. We get the same movement over and over. It’s as if they feel compelled to gesture because they’ve seen nearly every other speaker do it. Some exaggerate so much that you start watching the gestures and forgetting content of the speech. Just how wide are they going to flight their arms? How far are they going to dance to the left and right?
Remember, gestures should arise naturally as we speak. They should not precede or follow after a spoken thought. In natural conversation they arise with it. So, if you are the type of person who is very demonstrative with your hands, the gestures that arise from you will be frequent and generous, too. If you’re more reserved, your gestures will indicate this. But in either case, if your thought, feeling and passion are great, so will be your gesture. It will be applicable…and therefore not noted.
So forget about gestures. Just get on with your speech.