Use Your Hands, Improve Your Presentation

Just how important is it to use hand gestures to improve your public talk, presentation or sermon? This is one aspect of public speaking that speech trainers frequently ignore. As a result, many people sitting in the audience can find themselves distracted, amused, or even irritated by bad or inappropriate use of gestures.

Let me tell you a brief story. Just a few days ago, I was attempting to buy some eggs. A simple enough task. However, I did have a problem. My neighbour, who keeps chickens, does not speak English. I speak hardly any Bulgarian. The resulting conversation consisted almost entirely of using hand gestures! Picture, if you will the scene. A somewhat bemused Bulgarian villager watching a rather embarrassed ‘crazy’ Englishman acting out a virtual charade depicting a chicken laying an egg! I almost finished up buying the actual chicken, but with more gestures and hand signs eventually managed to convey that I merely needed ten eggs. Incidentally, the whole process was further complicated by the fact that the culture here is that nodding ones head indicates a negative, whilst shaking it from side to side is an affirmative gesture. Therefore, each time I thought I had made my point and ‘got the nod’, it really meant that he had not understood at all!

On reflection it made me think about the importance of being able to use gestures effectively in everyday speech and of course when making a presentation. Generally speaking, there are two types of gestures, a ‘descriptive’ gesture, (you try to emulate a chicken laying an egg, – OK, maybe that is more of a charade than a gesture, but you know what I mean!) There is also the ‘emphatic’ gesture, made to ‘emphasize’ or drive home a point.

I suppose one of the most famous examples of the latter was that used to great effect by (Sir) Winston Churchill in the Second World War when he used the ‘V’ for Victory sign to emphasize the importance of a positive attitude in very troubled times. It is also a classic example to use, as it demonstrates that it is important to use gestures in a correct manner. Back in the seventies, it became a global symbol for ‘peace and love’. In modern times, of course the same gesture used with the hand turned the other way means something entirely different and could get you into a lot of trouble!

The way gestures are used in normal speech often varies depending on the background or culture, some groups have a reputation for making great use of hands and arms to emphasize a point, and others are more reserved and make do with an occasional shrug or nod of the head.

When speaking before an audience your use or misuse of gestures can make or mar your presentation. I once sat through a talk in which every point was accompanied by a finger wagged vigorously as if the speaker was scolding a child. As a listener, I was initially amused, then bored, then thoroughly irritated by this behaviour. Not surprisingly, this is the only feature that I recall about that particular occasion – I cannot even remember the subject of the address! I rest my case.

Hand gestures do not come naturally to everyone and like other aspects of good public speaking often need a conscious effort and practice to make them appear natural. One ‘tool’ that works wonders during practice sessions is… a mirror!

Your aim should be to use hand gestures only when required to describe something or emphasize a point. Overuse minimises the effect and repeated and pointless gestures can rapidly develop into an irritating mannerism.

Key Point: Each gesture you make should be clear in its meaning, a careless flap of the hand means nothing, but a precise movement can convey a great deal. Think of it like pronouncing a word correctly as opposed to making an incoherent mumble.

Next time you attend a class, lecture, sermon or other speaking engagement, make a point of watching what the speaker does, as well as listening to what he/she says, – if their body language enhances their presentation, they are making good use of gestures. If you can only remember what they did with their hands, face etc. and not what they spoke about, then this is certainly where they need to get some coaching. How about you?

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