Episode 85: April 2, 2010
by Lisa B. Marshall
Without saying a word your body conveys a tremendous amount of information. Your posture, your eyes, your tone of voice, and your gestures directly impact perceptions. In fact you may have heard a very commonly quoted statistic from a study by Albert Mehrabian that suggests that 55% of message impact comes from body language (38% from tone of voice and only 7% from words).
What Does Body Language Tell Us?
Let me take a second to clarify that bit of misinformation. Though it’s true that body language and gestures are important, that’s not exactly what his study found. Mehrabian was trying to determine what we relied on most when our words are in conflict with our body messages. For example, when you ask your significant other, “Hey did you do that thing I asked you to do?” and they widen their eyes and then say, “Oh, yea, yea, I, took care of it.” You know immediately they really didn’t. We instinctively perceive what’s true from the tone of voice and body language—and not from the actual words. That’s what his study was talking about.
Why Gestures Are Important
So, although that often quoted statistic is technically incorrect, it doesn’t mean that body language and gestures aren’t a very important part of communication. In fact, the use of gestures is universal. And interestingly, language and gestures light up the same areas of the brain. When you use gestures, it’s like you are saying something twice: once with your body and once with your words. Additionally, facial expressions can readily demonstrate emotions like love, joy, pain, sorrow, disgust, and delight.
What Do Gestures Mean?
People in all cultures use gestures spontaneously when speaking.
When gestures support the message, they enhance your communication; however, when they don’t, gestures are just distracting.
At the same time, if you don’t use any gestures at all, you’ll appear stiff and uncomfortable. Or if you can’t put your hands down, you’ll seem scattered and silly. I think that’s why so many people ask me, “Lisa, what am I supposed to do with my hands?”
What Shouldn’t You Do with Your Hands When Speaking?
Let me first talk about what you shouldn’t do. When people get nervous they sometimes clasp their hands in front of their genitals—I call that the “Adam” pose. Other people clasp their hands behind their back. I call that the “the military at ease” pose. Some people like to cross and fold their arms on their chest, that’s the “defensive” pose. Some people, particularly men, like to put their hands in their pockets. (I have this habit, so now I buy pants with no pockets for presentations!) You should avoid doing all of the above.
Also, don’t fidget. Women often have a tendency to play with their hair or touch their faces, glasses, or jewelry. Some people unknowingly play with the laser pointer or the remote control. Be careful not to repeat the same gesture over and over again. Oh, and don’t grip the lectern like it’s a life preserver. Again, all of these are gestures you shouldn’t be making! Why? Because it’s distracting.
And perhaps more importantly, these gestures negatively affect your delivery, which can significantly reduce the credibility of an otherwise content rich presentation. (By the way, to see what I’m talking about in action, look in the TED.com archives of the presentation by Jared Diamond on “Why Societies Collapse” and you’ll see what I mean.)
What to Do with Your Hands When Speaking
So what should you be doing with your hands when speaking? The basic idea is to let your hands do some of the talking. Great speakers use hand gestures more than average. Gestures add meaning, they reflect complex thinking, and they give listeners confidence in the speaker.
If you watch people such as Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair, you will immediately begin to notice that they punctuate nearly every sentence with a hand gesture. You are probably saying, yes, but they’re politicians; what about for the rest of us? Watch writer Elizabeth Gilbert and scientist Jill Bolte Taylor and you'll see that they use frequent gestures too; it’s important in any kind of public speaking--and really, in any kind of communication in general.
How to Use Gestures in Speeches
It’s important to incorporate gestures into all of your presentations. The added visual cues help emphasize and clarify your points. Gestures can be used to illustrate the size or shape of something, they can show direction or position, or they can reinforce statistics. You can enumerate important points by using your fingers to count. To add gestures, think about your action verbs and then how you might demonstrate them. For example, if you say “lift,” then lift your hands to show the lifting.
Carefully choose when and what you want to gesture. The best time to use a specific gesture is when you are making an important point. So pick a few movements that feel natural and weave them in, but don’t go overboard or you’ll appear phony.
Practice Your Gestures
It’s critically important to practice so you appear natural, spontaneous, and relaxed. But be careful to not be overly practiced or you’ll appear robotic. You’ll also want to make sure the movements fit in with your personality. If you are outgoing and enthusiastic by nature, you might want your gestures to be bigger and more frequent. If you are painfully shy and reserved, it probably would suit you best to use smaller and more controlled movements.
However, you also need to keep in mind the size of the room and the line of sight. In general, the bigger the room and the more obstructed the views, the bigger and higher the gestures need to be.
Quick and dirty tip: Oh and don’t forget the most effective and contagious gesture of all: Your smile. According to Rick Wilson, a Rice professor of political science who did a study on smiling, "People who have friendly expressions are rated better or perceived to be nicer." Don’t forget to smile at your audience; it helps them to relax. Don't succumb to the old stereotype of business professionals portrayed as serious and unsmiling. Take a deep breath, relax and smile. Your natural, genuine smile will convey confidence and warmth, not silliness. Of course, one caveat: If you are delivering very bad news, like layoffs, smiling is not such a good idea.
This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
Your homework for this week is to practice gesturing more than you normally do in regular conversations. For one week, try to consistently and thoughtfully incorporate specific gestures that add meaning to your conversations. Then review the last presentation you made (or the last important conversation you had) and think about what gestures you could have used to create a strong and lasting impression. Finally, video record yourself incorporating your additions and you’ll see first hand how much gestures can enhance your communication.
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If you have a question, leave a voicemail at 206-350-7970. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.