photo of a hand

Four Things to Help Gesture Support Your Presentation

The three default arm positions.

Recently, two delegates, let’s call them Tom and Peter, got up to deliver their initial presentation they each took up one of the three default arm positions that we use when we feel like we are in the spotlight. Tom folded his arms across his chest and Peter clasped his hands behind his back. They delivered their presentation. Afterwards, as we watched the videos back we discussed how folded arms place a barrier between us and the audience which can look defensive and that hands clasped behind the back can make us look like a drill sergeant, who is about to give us a dressing down; and neither will help us connect to our audience. At that moment they did what the majority of people do when we discuss this, they clasped their hands in front of their groin and say, “I never know what to do with my hands!”

What is gesture and why is it important

When we are relaxed and confident in what we are saying our gesture will support and clarify our ideas. However, when we stand to give a presentation, that innate knowledge, can on occasions, do a runner! As human beings, we are leaky; our internal emotional landscape is revealed in our body language and gesture. So, whether we are feeling comfortable or anxious, confident in ourselves and the content or not, our hands and face will demonstrate this (remember that defensive groin protection?!).

In a presentation, gesture helps audiences pay attention to the text, it is like a Body Language version of CAPITAL LETTERS or a neon highlight. It says listen up this bit is important. It also helps to direct the audience to how you feel about what you are saying and how you would like them to feel about it too. Gesture helps the audience understand subtext – what is being said underneath the words.

I’ve been told to keep my hands and arms still.

When delegates tell me this, the use the declarative statement but almost always with the rising intonation of a question. They inherently know it’s not quite right. I tend to respond with more questions.

  1. Do you ever speak passionately and not move your arms?
  2. Does anyone you know do that?

The answer is a categorical No!

So, why would you do that when delivering a speech?

Answer – you wouldn’t.

Now, this doesn’t mean anything goes. The gesture you use needs to support what you are saying and what you are not saying.

Four Things You Can Do to Help Support Your Presentation with Gesture.

1. Start with Your Feet.

I know it sounds strange but if you start with your feet you will free up your arms.

One of the results of feeling nervous in presentations and public speaking is that our feet become disconnected from the ground; we wander aimlessly, we rock back on to our heels or lean forward so our toes have to grip the floor, some of us will try to stand on the sides of feet. Whichever way anxiety leaks out from our feet, it has an impact on the upper part of our body, especially the arms. In order to reduce the feelings of anxiety and make ourselves feel more secure we clamp our arms from the shoulder to the elbow to our sides, this causes two issues; firstly, our ribs can’t move as easily, making it harder to breathe deeply, leaving our voice under-powered. Secondly, it means we can only gesture from the elbow inwards and outwards so we end up looking like the human version of a T-Rex. Not a great look.

So, ground the feet and your arms will begin to free up.

2. Eggs in the armpits – Stay with me!

In combination with Grounding another technique to help us not clamp our arms to our sides is to imagine that we are carrying fresh eggs in armpits – if we clamp our arms down we will crush the eggs and have eggy pits – very unpleasant. If we use our arms wildly we drop the eggs and end up with it on our shoes. Thinking about just holding the eggs gently there allows space for the ribs to move and arms to move freely should you want to support what you are saying.

3. The Power-Sphere

Carmine Gallo in “Talk Like TED’ refers to the Power-Sphere. The Power-sphere is a circle in front of our body, that sits roughly above our waist and below our shoulders. Any movement above the shoulders can begin to look like a rally and can be off-putting especially for corporate audiences. Any gesture that happens below the waist cab begin to look a little furtive – not a look any of us want. Upturned hands help to signal question and palms facing each other or the floor help support statements of fact.

4. Rehearse your Speech and your Gesture.

Muddied thoughts will result in muddied gesture, the clearer our thoughts are the clearer our gesture will be. Rehearse, Rehearse and Rehearse a bit more. Most of us will spend a great deal of time on the content and slide decks and very little time rehearsing out loud at performance level. If we rehearse at a mumble and with proto-gesture that is the neuropathway we are building and probably what will come out in the final presentation. Purposeful Practice will get us much further. If we decide what gesture we want to use to underline which bits of our speech and then practise them out loud with full gesture until we no longer need to think about them (or at least think about them less!) – our presentation or speech will feel authentic and natural and our message will be far more powerful.

When we are working towards a presentation three things can support our gesture; grounded feet, space under the arms and a clear rehearsed message so the gesture supports the message. The more we practice the more natural we will look.

Happy gesturing!

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