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Gesturing In Presentations and the Media – Don’t Fake It!

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Gesturing In Presentations and the Media – Don’t Fake It!Speaking

One way to spot someone who has been coached to improve presentations and television appearances – and not necessarily coached well – is to watch for exaggerated or inappropriate gestures. You’ve seen the people I am talking about. As they speak before audiences or on TV they wave their hands artificially and excessively. There seems a disconnect between what they say and what their arms signal, like a drumbeat out of synch with a song. The gestures appear to exist for their own sake. In the worst cases, the movements distract you from the message.

Yes, many of us have been told that you have more power if you gesture than if you are a stock-still talking head. Indeed, if you watch yourself speak on videotape both with and without gestures, there is more perceived energy with the hands in motion.

But to what purpose?

I believe that too much is made of the importance of such gestures. Think about it. If gestures created more powerful presentations, why do none of the major TV Network anchors use them? Why do leaders often give inspiring speeches without them? Why do on-camera analysts who do not gesture sometimes convey more thoughtfulness and reflection than those who do? Consider the arts as well. When PBS showed the anniversary concert of “Les Miserables” a couple of years ago, the awesome songs were delivered by superb singers with their arms at their sides. Lyrics and melodies inspired without physical dramatics.

My media coaching clients often ask, “How should I use gestures?” I hesitate to answer for two reasons. 1) I value content more than technique, and am uncomfortable spending time on technique. 2) More importantly, I find that when we do talk about gestures, clients tend to pay more attention to what their hands are doing than to what their mouths are saying. Style eclipses substance, which is not helpful. I finesse the subject as often as possible.

Nevertheless, I obtained important insight into the contradictions of gestures in a Wall Street Journal story. Perhaps you saw it. The Journal quoted Columbia University psychology professor Robert M. Krauss who has written an article “Why Do We Gesture When We Speak?” for Current Directions in Psychological Science. Krauss made two important points, among others:

“Gestures Don’t Communicate Well” 

Krauss almost immediately put to rest the notion that gestures help audiences. He said that research has shown that gestures don’t convey a lot of information, and are a waste of time if they are being used to communicate. That is not to say they do not help in certain situations. They are useful in giving directions, for example. While people sometimes gain information from gestures, Krauss says mostly they do not.

“Gestures Benefit The Speaker More Than The Audience”

To me this was the real bombshell. Professor Krauss says research shows that the reason we gesture when we talk in real life is to help ourselves. Apparently the movement of the arms activates more of the brain than speaking alone does. Therefore, Krauss believes that since movement and speech combined involve more of the brain, then a gesture makes it easier for us to both remember and recall spoken information. Furthermore, Krauss noticed that gestures virtually always precede the words we say. That is another indicator that the gesture, working ahead of our words, is a tool for aiding recollection, rather than for simply accentuating what we are saying.

So what should we spokespeople, speakers, and presenters do with gestures? I have these recommendations.

1. If you gesture, do it authentically

Since, as Krauss says, real-life gestures slightly precede what we say, that would explain why forced gestures in speeches and on television don’t ring true. If we gesture because we are supposed to rather than because we need to, then the movement will come at the wrong time in our delivery. The audience will detect it subliminally. In real life, we are accustomed to gestures that are truly connected to what is being said and are not planned in advance. So, if you are going to gesture, let it flow naturally out of what you are thinking and saying. Don’t choreograph it. Otherwise it will not be authentic.

2. If you use gestures, then rehearse them aloud with your presentation 

Since Krauss says gestures help us remember information, then it would be advantageous to us to rehearse speeches aloud, natural gestures and all. Then when we deliver the actual presentation, the gestures should aid our remembering what we want to say. This is consistent with my TV journalism experience. It was easier to memorize on camera stand-ups that involved movement than those that did not. The actions linked with the words. All were of a piece and much easier to repeat.

In summary, the bottom-line for you is that gesturing is a tool for you and not for your audience. Let gestures happen as a result of your enthusiastic determination to communicate ideas. Beware planning them, or they, and you, may appear fake!

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