How-to: Public Speaking – Gesture

Not Andrew Marr in BBC TV impressions show Dead RingersNot just speech, but attitude and gesture maketh the Public Speaker.

He was a canny lad, our Will Shakespeare; he knew precisely the pits and traps in performance that would wreck his immortal poetry and prose. Hence his instructions to the players in Hamlet:

“Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

…let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”

If, as we’re often told, 80% of our meaning is conveyed by non-verbal communication, then our attitude, demeanour and gestures play a crucial part in delivering our material to our audience.

We nearly all use gesture in everyday speech, we use it for emphasis and to reinforce the key words. Expressive people with a little more imagination will use gesture to dramatise and role-play what they’re talking about.

That’s fine. You want your audience to know that you are alive and keen to pass on whatever it is you have to say. What’s more it gives your audience some visual cues as to what’s important in your speech. You know they’re not going to remember every single word; few of us have perfect recall; so think about the words or phrases you want them to remember. The emphasis in your voice as you hit those key words can be reinforced with a carefully rationed hand gesture.

Gestures that work
Do use your hands – knowingly. When you run-through your speeches or presentations (you do run-through your speeches or presentations, don’t you?), identify your key words and phrases as you will speak them and consider if a gesture will help to emphasise them.

Your gestures need to be open, confident and non-threatening. So an emphasis gesture is open-palm, directed outward toward your audience; it should be inclusive or invitational. Be deliberate and only gesture once for any word or phrase for the point you’re making. Repeatedly punching the air or pointing on each syllable comes across as overly aggressive or domineering to your audience. It really doesn’t help if you come across as a rude ego-maniac.

Of course there are exceptions. If your talk includes warnings or safety points – ‘stop…’ or ‘don’t…’ or ‘but remember…’ points can be emphasised with a hand up ‘stop gesture or a finger in the air. Like strong chilli peppers, use sparingly.

With all gestures, ask yourself; does it reinforce the point? Does it fit the context? Is it open and invitational? Have I used too many gestures?

Gestures that Don’t work
Back to Shakespeare’s ‘sawing the air.’ We can look at examples of successful speakers whose use of gesture is at odds with their otherwise polished performance.

Respected former BBC Politic Editor Andrew Marr was regularly lampooned on the BBC impressions show Dead Ringers. In the TV sketches, the Marr caricature had attached a pair of six foot long puppet arms on sticks, which would wave about as he delivered his latest flowery report outside Number Ten.

Marr suffers from a condition movie critic Mark Kermode calls “Big Flappy Hands.” You don’t want to look like a flamingo taking off into the wind. Audiences love animated speakers but not if their windmilling arms will blow away their expensive hairdo’s.

A Big Horse Very Far Away or a Small Horse Very Close?
Your venue is going to affect the way you deliver your material. In a small meeting room, or any intimate space where do don’t have to raise your voice, your delivery needs to be light and conversational; almost normal speech. So you need normal gestures. No ‘Big Flappy Hands.’

In a large formal venue, say on a stage, in front of a large audience, you can go for a bit more drama and make things bigger. After all, most of your audience will be far away. But remember to use gesture sparingly to emphasise the words; this isn’t a Marcel Marceau mime show.

In a really large venue, such as a conference centre, the people at the back are going to see you as a lolly-stick figure in the distance. If you decide to gesture really big for them, just remember you may look like Andrew ‘Puppet Hands’ Marr to the folks at the front.

Never underestimate the comedy value of a big gesture. Arena-tour comedians like Lee Evans and Michael McIntyre know how to fill a big stage; it’s a tradition that goes back to Comedia De L’Arte and beyond. Possibly not appropriate if you’re delivering a eulogy, however.

Which brings us, finally, to speaking on camera. The lens picks up and exaggerates every tick, twitch and blink. Think how restrained the US President is in the White House press room. You have to keep things small for the camera, for one thing so you don’t look like a clown and for another, don’t obscure your face in centre-frame by waving your hands across it. Even in a big room with a lot of people, if there’s a camera rolling, you have to close down the hand-waving and facial expressions. RC

Robin Catling has trained corporate staff and trained-the-trainer in a variety business and technical areas for some major UK and International companies including First Choice, American Express and British Airways. It may not have improved his sanity – or theirs.

Related: How-to: The Elevator Speech

About Robin Catling

Robin Catling gained degrees in both arts and technology which led to a diverse portfolio of employment. A freelance systems analyst, project manager and business change manager for the likes of American Express, British Airways and IBM, he moved on to web design, journalism and technical authoring. He has also worked in film and television, both behind and in front of the camera, including productions by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Ron Howard and Ridley Scott. A qualified three-weapon coach, he runs West Devon Swords teaching sports fencing to all age groups, and in recent years qualified with the British Federation of Historical Swordplay to teach medieval and renaissance combat in the Historical Western Martial Arts.


2 thoughts on “How-to: Public Speaking – Gesture

  1. Wonderful article!

    Posted by maybelle deleon | Feb 14, 2013, 1:19 pm
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    Posted by Choco_top | Feb 17, 2013, 12:27 am

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