When we’re at a party, talking to friends, or sitting down with family, do we think about our gestures? Probably not. They just happen. So why does it become such a big issue for us when we stand up in front of others for a presentation?
When I first started acting, I was paranoid about my hands. The same thoughts were always running though my mind: “What do I do with my hands while I’m speaking? Do I look awkward? I need to make a gesture here!”
In presentation skills training, we have an ongoing list of what we call “ineffective gestures": arm or hand movements that close us off from our audience, whether we're speaking with one person or thousands. Some examples are crossing our arms in front of our body, or holding our hands together in a prayer-like position. These ineffective gestures create an imaginary wall between us and the person/people we are speaking with. They tell our audience that we are shutdown, even though we may not be feeling that way at all.
After years of studying acting and performance, I've found that there is only one remedy to these types of gestures. And that is an impulsive gesture.
Impulsive gestures are what we do every day, without thinking: they way we hail a cab, wave to a neighbor, or describe how large the fish is that we caught. They're always connected to our message and support our content, because they flow naturally from it. There's always congruency. Since we're not thinking about what we're doing with our hands, our gestures arise organically. How do we get comfortable with that? Practice.
We can actually practice using impulsive gestures. Yes, I realize practice and impulsivity may seem like an oxymoron, but actors do it all the time; they're masters at preparation. When you watch Meryl Streep or Robert DeNiro, do their gestures and movement look natural? They've spent a lifetime practicing movement and body language, and that practice has become part of their muscle memory. They don’t have to think about how to gesture — it’s been programmed into their brains and bodies.
If we practice enough, we can become comfortable with using the gestures that flow naturally from our content, rather than resorting to ineffective ones. Start practicing in daily conversation with friends, or at your next business meeting. Think about what you're doing with your gestures. Are they connected to what you're saying? Are your gestures distracting or inconsistent with you desired message? Are you not using gestures at all?
Here are some rules for practicing impulsive gestures:
- Gestures should always be above the waist. Low gestures become distracting and take away from the words coming out of your mouth.
- Bigger is better, more is merrier. If you think you're using too many gestures, or that your gestures are too big, they most likely aren't — as long as they're connected to what you're saying.
Gestures have the ability to underline and emphasize parts of our content. They can help us connect to our audience on an emotional level. They can bring interest and clarity to our presentation or one-on-one conversation.
The idea is to bring the level of comfort and fluidity you have when gesturing in your every day life to your next business presentation. Become aware of how it feels to use naturally occurring gestures. How do you do that? Practice.
On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you with using gestures when presenting? Let us know in the comments below!
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