If you want to make a point in a speech or presentation, your gestures can help – or hurt. Gestures can reinforce your message or distract your audience. Gestures can convey emotions or project a lack of confidence.
While most gestures are spontaneous, effective speakers and presenters devote time to eliminating gestures that may be naturally counterproductive. For male speakers, it can be sticking their hands in their pockets. For female speakers, it can be swaying as they talk with their hands behind their backs.
Like words, gestures have meaning. There may not be a gesture dictionary, but people know their definitions. Crossed arms signals defensiveness. Hands on hips connotes condescension. Hands in pockets betrays nervousness. Hands crossed in front suggests timidity. Thumbs up shows agreement. A fist warns of anger.
When you consider that people listening to a speech or presentation remember 80 percent of what they see and only 20 percent of what they hear, gestures take on greater significance. Your words might be brilliant, but your gestures can cause an audience to start looking at their smartphones.
Media training can help. Media training can help you with your words, while also making you aware of annoying gestures and off-putting verbal tics. There is nothing as chastening as watching yourself speaking and gesturing on video. Unless you are a total narcissist, you will become your harshest critic.
Self-criticism must be harnessed into purposeful practice to get rid of annoying gestures and focus instead on gestures that connect you with your audience and reinforce your message. Be like successful athletes and train your body to perform smoothly and effortlessly. Develop a lean style with movements that matter.
You can learn a lot by practicing in front of a full-length mirror. It’s just you and your reflection. No pressure.
You should emulate stand-up comedians who take their routines on the road, testing gags in front of real audiences. (Telling jokes into a mirror never produces any laughs.) Practice your speech in front of friends, family or coworkers. Encourage them to be candid, telling you what you did well and not so well. Ask them to comment specifically on your gestures.
For major speeches, presentations or a TED Talk, consider hiring a media trainer or speech coach. Give yourself enough time before appearing on stage to make adjustments and practice.
Because gesturing is a normal human behavior, be conscious of your body language in everyday circumstances. Self-awareness is the first step to improving the physical dimension of your communication. You can practice your moves at low-pressure social events and family gatherings.
Gestures tend to reflect inner thoughts and fears. You may need to practice some psychology on yourself to disguise nerves, control angry outbursts, avoid giddy laughter and stop flailing your arms.
Study powerful speakers in person, on television or in church, making special note of how they use their hands, how they stand and how they establish and maintain rapport with their audience.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all set of gestures. Your gestures need to be authentically yours. Whether tall or short, old or young, use your assets to their greatest advantage.
And, don’t forget, the most endearing gesture you can make is to smile. You don’t need a coach to practice smiling. You don’t need media training to know a smile can delight an audience better than anything else.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.