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The Fundamentals of Public Speaking: Purposeful Hand Gestures

Big purposeful gestures help you stand out and are immediately memorable

PublicSpeaking.jpgIt has been five years since we posted the article, "Fundamentals of Public Speaking: Using Nonverbal Cues," so it is overdue for us to drill a little deeper into the idea of purposeful hand gestures. In that article, we encouraged presenters to use their hands to reinforce their ideas. In the same way that a picture can help to quickly explain what otherwise might be an overly complex idea, meaningful gestures can serve as visual aids to help the audience understand and remember important points in a story.

We are careful to describe these gestures as purposeful to distinguish them from gestures that lack purpose. Since public speaking inherently puts us outside our usual comfort zone, many speakers lapse into self-destructive bad habits that make them feel a bit more at ease. While practicing, watch to see if you do any of the following. If you do, stop it immediately!

  • Putting your hands on your hips. This looks expectant and condescending.

  • Crossing your arms. This is the ultimate in defensive postures. You are closing off any chance of a connection with the audience.

  • Clasping your hands in front. We call this the fig leaf because you are subconsciously revealing how vulnerable and exposed you feel.

  • Clasping your hands behind your back. We call this the perp because it looks like the police have you in cuffs and are about to usher you out. 

  • Putting your hands in your pockets. This slopes your shoulders, looks disengaged and has a high likelihood of being distracting.

Many untrained speakers wave their hands in front on them as they talk. It is habitual and mindless -- and instead of adding to the story and amplifying key points it can be distracting and detract from the points you are trying to make. Most often, these gestures in front of the body are simply defense mechanisms. The speaker is feeling vulnerable, so he or she puts their hands out front as a barrier. It isn't something they are conscious of -- it is a natural manifestation of their nervousness.

Purposeful hand gestures can be planned and choreographed. For every five minutes in a presentation, I will plan for two or three purposeful hand movements.

Before I continue, I want to say that my next bit of advice is not universally agreed upon. I have a great deal of respect for Vanessa Van Edwards of Science of People, but I disagree on one significant piece of her teaching that pertains to hand gestures. She recommends always keeping hand gestures in a fairly tight area between your chest and waist. She says if your gestures go outside that box, it's "seen as distracting and out of control."

The fact that very few speakers make BIG gestures is precisely why I encourage speakers to at least experiment with going outside that box -- especially in our presentation skills training sessions. If they say something is big, I encourage them to hold their hands on either side as far apart as they can reach. That's really big! The audiene will think it's really big! You might even grunt a little to make the point of how big it is. If they say something is high, I went them to reach as high as they can and get on the tips of their toes.

Big gestures have impact. It feels strange when you do it, but when we play back the video it doesn't look strange at all. It looks powerful. The question for the presenter is whether it's worth a split second of going out of their comfort zone to have the audience pay keen attention the rest of the way. Getting the audience to pay attention is hard!

Big purposeful gestures are so unusual that they are immediately memorable.

Check the hand gestures used in the video below of the winning speech from the Toastmasters International 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi. Using his hands along with some nicely considered props, he pulls the audience into his story. The portion from 2:15 to 2:35 is especially powerful. When he wants the audience to imagine a tear coming down his mother's face, he traces the track of that tear down his cheek with his finger. When he wants the audience to remember a number, he holds three fingers out away from his body. When he wants to juxtapose two very different feelings, he uses his right hand away from his body to help the audience see joy then the left hand to connote sorrow and finally pats his chest to embody shame.

Wow! Don't skip watching it! This is a master class in how gestures can amplify your points, draw the audience in and make it all memorable.

So try it. Choreograph a few purposeful gestures for your presentation. With a little planning you will have the audience eating out of your hands!

Learn more about DPK Public Relations' presentation skills training at http://www.dpkpr.com/presentationskills. We come to your location at your convenience to address your unique needs. Contact DPK Public Relations for more information at 800.596.8708 or by completing our PR contact form.

Daniel Keeney
(800) 596-8708
Author: Daniel Keeney
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