Getting The Most Out Of Gestures

Effective gesturing can increase your confidence and audience connection
Effective gesturing can increase your confidence and audience connection
Image Credit: Drew

When we give a speech, we may feel like all we have to work with are our words. That can make us feel pretty lonely and exposed out there on the stage. We are desperate for something else that we can use in order to cause our audience to remain interested in what we are telling them. It turns out that we have a secret tool that we can use that will allow us to not only capture our audience’s attention, but also hold on to it. What is this magic tool? Gestures.

It’s All About The Hands

Often speakers ask “What do I do with my hands?” The simple answer is that during a speech you should put your hands where they will help you connect to your audience and avoid making you appear distracted or nervous. It turns out that gesturing during a speech is far more complex and nuanced. The goal for every speaker is to learn how to maximize the impact of your gestures. Most speakers don’t worry about gesturing while they are chatting with friends or conversing with co-workers. However, when they are speaking in front of an audience, they can start to fret. They know what many people know: the messages we convey through our body language are just as important as the words coming out of our mouths. Research has shown that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of any speech. When we are presenting in front of others this only highlights the importance of nonverbal cues while also provoking our anxiety.

So what are we getting so nervous about? What we want to accomplish during our next speech is to get our message across effectively. We want to make sure we appear confident and competent. Additionally, we wonder what the future consequences of our presentation might be. We ask ourselves questions: Will I get what I want? Will I appear foolish? Will everything work out the way I intended?

Speakers need to realize that your body responds to speaking in a very physiological way: your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing becomes more shallow, your legs become wobbly and you suffer from what is called plumbing reversal – what is normally wet (e.g., mouths) gets dry and what is normally dry (e.g., palms and brows) gets wet. When we are nervous, our hands and arms tend to pull up close to your chest … sort of like a boxer who is about to be pummeled. A tight, closed body position not only makes us appear defensive and nervous, but it makes our audience feel uneasy and doubting. These natural tendencies get in the way of our confident, competent and connected speaking.

Making Gestures Work for You

When giving a speech, you are going to want to establish a base Your goal is going to be to counteract your innate tendencies. To begin with, your arms will need a base. This is a place from which to start and return. You should allow your arms to hang from your side as if a tailor were measuring you for a new jacket. To help with this you can gently rest your thumbs along the side of your leg. Note that this position can feel quite awkward. However, it looks very comfortable and commanding. Another base position that you can use is to lightly cup or clasp your hands at the level of your belly button. You will want to avoid squeezing your hands too tightly or holding them at your sternum level; either of these actions cause your shoulders to rise and your elbows to touch your body, both of which make you appear tense.

When you are using gestures during a speech, you will want to raise your gestures above your waist. One way to make sure that you do this correctly is to imagine you are submerged up to your waist in the shallow end of a swimming pool – all of your gestures need to be above the water. When you gesture this way during a speech, your audience will feel comfortable because they can focus on your face and still see your gestures in their field of vision. If your gestures are too low, the audience will feel compelled to look at the movement rather than watch your face, which is where we typically look when people speak. The result of this is that it will make your audience feel uncomfortable and will end up distracting them.

When you are making gestures during a speech make sure that you extend your arms away from your body. Your goal is to get your elbows unhinged from your torso. This reach will most often extend out at a 45-degree angle. Imagine that each gesture that you make is reaching outward as if to shake someone’s hand. By making this extension it allows you to fully use your gestures as well as connect with your listeners. Researchers call this connection “speaker immediacy.” You will be immediately present and engaged with your audience.

What All Of This Means For You

When we give a speech, it’s not just our words that are going to help us connect with our audience. The gestures that we make during our speech may also help us to make a connection with our audience. However, in order to be effective, we need to know how to make the right gestures. Just waving our hands around while we are on stage is not going to do the trick. Speakers need to understand how to make effective gestures during their speech.

Our hands have to be used during a speech to help deliver our message. Speakers understand that nonverbal communication is an important part of any speech that they give. When we give a speech, we often become nervous. When we become nervous we have a tendency to draw our hands in close to us. What we need to be doing is establishing a base for our hands to use. We also have to make sure that the gestures that we make are all above our waist. We will want to extend our hands away from our body so that we can connect with our audience.

Taking the time to get good at making gestures is time well spent. When we give a speech, our audience will be looking at us and gestures are how we can invite them into our speech. If we choose the right gestures to make, then we can make sure that our audience is interested in what we are saying and will continue to listen to us.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that there is ever a time that we should not be making gestures during a speech?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As speakers, every time that we are asked to give a speech we have a big problem on our hands. We want to create a speech that is going to both capture and then hold on to our audience’s attention. However, this is probably not the first speech that your audience has seen. There is a sense of “been there, done that” that can wash over us as we ponder how we can keep our audience interested in what we are saying. The good news is that there is something simple that we can do. Doing this will surprise your audience and will cause them to pay attention to you. All you have to do is include a song in your next speech…