body language

Gestures Can Make or Break Your Speech

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

There is no better way to draw your audience closer to you and deliver your message than with strong, authentic gestures. There is no better way to drive away your audience and have your message fall flat than with weak, annoying gestures.

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 Image.jpg

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Too-Much Answer

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

Eager spokespersons sometimes share too much information when answering questions, obscuring the key message they intended to highlight.

Spokespersons who turn into gushers when asked questions typically fail to know their mission, which is to deliver a message, not act like an encyclopedia.

Saying the right thing with just-enough language requires discipline. That usually comes from media training and experience. The kind of experience when your key message is omitted from a story and replaced by something less important, trivial or wrong.

Don't blame the reporter, who has to make sense of what you say and turn it into a short clip for TV or radio or a couple of quotes for a print or online article. If the reporter can't decipher your central point in your flurry of words, blame yourself for creating the confusion.

There is a fine line between a tight response and a terse response. A terse response can come across in the interview, and later on air, as evasive. A tight response, if delivered confidently and conversationally, can convey a sense of command by the spokesperson, increasing their believability. The only way most spokespersons gain that confidence is through practice. You need to now what you need to say and practice how to say it effectively.

Media trainers encourage chiseling key messages into sound bites. That may sound contrived, but the idea is to zero in on a message and the best way to express it. Not only will that help to ensure it is quoted, it will make the message more comprehensible.

In this regard, the spokesperson role is more like a playwright and an actor. You start with a goal, then think like a playwright how to present it – the words, the scenery, the staging. The actor's responsibility is to make the words come alive with his or her voice and body language.

Another critical aspect of media training is the art of bridging – how you take a question and turn it back to your key message. Instead of learning strong bridging phrases, some spokespersons think out loud and wander toward an answer, which may not be all that well thought out. The ill-considered answer too often is a launch pad for additional questions that pull the interview far away from your key point, maybe even into regions you sought to avoid.

Spokespersons are chosen because of their knowledge of a subject and/or their job title. However, their key message can be swamped by over-sharing or feeling they must get everything on the record. Digressions, windy explanations and technical jargon exasperate most reporters, at best, and confound them, at worst.

Transparency for a spokesperson involves telling the truth in a way that is meaningful and can be heard. Too much information is often the enemy of the truth. It buries what is important under the weight of interesting, but non-essential facts.

The best spokesperson is the one who knows what to say – and what not to say. The best spokesperson thinks about connecting with his or her audience through 12 seconds on air or two paragraphs in print.

Learning the Language of Listening

Learning to become a fluent listener is a lot like learning a new language. It takes dedication, practice and keeping off your smartphone to check for email messages.In learning any new language, you have to figure out where to begin. That is also true for learning the language of listening.

If you belong to the "I'm the Smartest Guy in the Room" club or feel obliged to explain why everyone else is wrong, then listening is probably a foreign language to you. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a RosettaStone tape to learn to listen. You have to learn on your own, often cold turkey.

Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Watch Good Listeners 

Just as some people learn a new language by watching TV shows in that language, you can learn a lot about listening by watching good listeners. You may not have to go very far to find them. They may be coworkers or your employees. Put them in charge of a brainstorming session and see how they guide a conversation and listen.

Entertaining Your Audience

Public speaking no longer is considered entertainment, but public speakers should know how to be entertaining — or brief.

The people who bring us TED Talks offer some valuable advice on how speakers can attract and keep an audience's attention. Here is some of that advice: 

Effective speakers weave their message into a story that helps listeners understand context and why they should care. 

Timing is everything. TED Talks speakers get 18 minutes to speak, but audiences make up their mind in far less time whether to listen. TED Talks advisers say the sweet spot for a talk is 12 minutes, but don't be fooled, people will tune out in a jiffy unless you are "funny, profound or ingenious." You better say something, and say it in a way that beats the competition of content on a smartphone.

Too many speakers turn into spectators when they use PowerPoint slides. Presentation materials are props and sidekicks, not tele-prompters or speech notes. If you have to read your slides, listeners may wonder whether you know what you're talking about. For all they know, your assistant prepared the slides that you are reading. 

In the excitement of speaking, some people talk in one long run-on sentence. A sentence never ends. There are no pauses. There is no cadence to give verbal cues to listeners about important points. Your speech is an oral blur. Stop. Take a breath. Think about your words. Give your speech some inflection.

TED Talks data indicates that you need to look the part you’re are speaking. You are, in effect, a performer. Playing Hamlet in blue jeans may not work for your audience. Dress appropriately for your talk so your audience doesn't see a buffoon not worth listening to.

Learning What Not to Say

You practice crafting and delivering key messages. You also need to practice sticking to the script so you don't say what you didn't mean to say.Crisis responders and reputation managers coach clients on what to say and how to say it. They also should spend time emphasizing what not to say.

It is hard enough to extinguish a crisis or reinforce a reputation with carefully chosen words. But some words, no matter how well intended or even deserved, should not be uttered because they will stoke controversy more than quell it.