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Talking with your hands

“Sometimes when you don’t have words, you have hands.”   ~Terry

My sister and I were chatting with our aunt’s neighbors at a senior residence, when one of them commented on the way I was chatting. Apparently, it involved gestures.

Which is not unusual. We all use our hands when we talk. Clients sometimes tell me they think they over-use their hands. They’re usually wrong.

The truth is, your hands really are almost as important as your words. And sometimes you can speak volumes with your hands.

Using gestures when we speak is not only natural.

It’s also highly correlated with charisma. That makes sense, right?  A speaker who stands stock still and doesn’t move their hands will be much less magnetic than a speaker who creates a visual experience for their audience as well as an auditory one.

And that’s as true in the lobby of an independent living place in Indiana as it is on a stage with hundreds of people listening. (It’s also true on a virtual platform—we’ll get to that.) Bottom line: wherever you’re talking, your gestures matter.

So what gestures should you use?

The answer, which may be unsatisfying, is: it depends. The gestures that feel natural for you are the right ones for you to use.

You’ve probably seen a speaker who seems pre-programmed. Somebody somewhere told them to include gestures when they speak. And by, God, they’re gesturing. But they don’t look natural, in fact, they might appear robotic. That’s not what we’re going for.

The whole point of gestures and movement and facial expressions is to enhance communication. To emphasize or illustrate what we’re saying, to support or even magnify the words.

Moving your hands randomly because you’re “supposed to” gesture misses the mark. So, even though clients ask for them all the time, there are no hard and fast rules about how to gesture.

I can offer a few soft guidelines.

Consider the space you’re in.

Are you speaking on an auditorium stage? In a conference room? At your desk in front of your laptop?

Gestures that seem natural in that auditorium look over-the-top in a smaller room. The reverse is also true. A speaker who’s appropriately animated standing in front of eight colleagues in a conference room might seem small and insignificant using those same gestures in a more cavernous space.

On Teams or Zoom, your space is even smaller. Gestures are no less important. One reason so many virtual meetings are so boring is that we’re staring at a screen full of mostly-static talking heads.

So, position yourself and your camera so we see a little bit of room above your head, and some of your body is in the frame. The camera angle should be low enough that you can bring your hands up into the picture and use them, as you would if you were talking in person.

Generally, IRL, keep your hands below your shoulders.

Yes, I can imagine you might use an elaborate chin-stroke to indicate thoughtfulness. Or scratch your head to illustrate not-knowing. We could come up with other scenarios that call for higher hands.

Very often though, when our hands are on our face or in our hair, it’s not an intentional gesture designed to communicate a message. It’s an automatic, unconscious movement that conveys nervousness or discomfort. We’re best off to avoid scratching, tapping, and fiddling.

Be still sometimes.

Just as a pause can add meaning and impact to what we’re saying, a moment of stillness can add weight to the way we’re saying it.

In fact, now that I think about it, the pause and the stillness usually go together. It would seem silly to stop talking for a moment and keep moving my hands around at the same time. It feels – and looks – more natural to interrupt the flow of movement when I’m silent, however briefly.

Be congruent always.

You’ve been in an audience, I’m sure, where you just felt there was something off about the speaker. They didn’t seem authentic, it felt like they were putting on a show. Or maybe even trying to put something over on you.

One reason that happens is a mismatch between what we hear and what we see.

When you’re talking about a grand project, your gestures are probably expansive. Tiny movements, or static hands are incongruent with the message coming from your mouth.

Likewise, if the subject is the small, incremental steps we’ll take to address a nagging problem, those big, flowing gestures would seem inappropriate.

We naturally make those gesture-adjustments in casual conversation. Just try talking about that big fish you caught while holding up one hand with your thumb and forefinger an inch or two apart.

When we plan and rehearse a presentation, there’s a chance that the words and gestures become disconnected. That’s not a reason to skip the planning and rehearsal, mind you. It is a suggestion to pay attention to the way you use your hands.

We have the best chance to influence our audience when our words, tone, and physicality are congruent.