by TJ Walker
Several times each week, I have speech and media training clients who come into my training studio who express themselves in an extraordinarily passionate, confident manner. Everything about their voice, body and hand gestures conveys confidence.
Then I put the video camera on them so that they can practice a speech or media interview. Instantly, it’s as if their arms have become lifeless appendages that were sewn onto their torsos in the middle of the night – as devoid of nerve endings as a Punch-’NJudy doll. Their voices become flat, boring and monotone. They sound and move like zombies, and if their hands move at all, it is to assume the military at-ease position or a fig-leaf pose. Inevitably, the client says to me, “What do I do with my hands? I never know what to do with my hands when I’m speaking.”
What should you do with your hands when you are speaking?
There is a lot of misinformation about this subject. Someone somewhere told speakers that they should not gesture with their hands – that they would seem unprofessional – and somehow this myth caught on. Unfortunately, this is the worst advice any speaker can ever receive. Confident, comfortable people always speak while gesturing with their hands. Nervous people rarely ever move their hands. If you want to appear to be confident and comfortable, move your hands. When you stop moving your hands, your body also moves less, creating a more boring visual experience for your audience.
However, the fundamental reason you should move your hands when you speak to audiences or in front of TV cameras is that this is what you do the rest of the time when you speak naturally. In fact, most people are hardwired to speak with their hands every time they open their mouth.
Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, points out clinical studies that reveal that even deaf and blind infants gesture when they are making sounds. Moving our hands when we make sounds from our mouth is how we human beings are programmed!
Because they are nervous, many presenters do not gesture when they are in front of an audience or a TV camera. And this is the beginning of a process that destroys their entire presentation. When they keep their hands from making their natural movements, they end up tensing up their entire arms. This tension spreads throughout the rest of their body until it ultimately reaches their vocal cords.
The result? A voice that used to sound rich, resonant, energetic and conversational now sounds dull, flat, monotone, tense and low in volume. At this point, the speech is destined for failure, and it all started as a chain reaction triggered by not using natural hand gestures.
Do you think that you don’t normally gesture with your hands when you speak?
You are wrong.
Most of my clients think they don’t either. All I do is videotape them after they are through presenting a formal speech, when they don’t realize they are being taped. Then I simply fast-forward to the part of the tape during which they were being secretly recorded. Invariably, they are gesturing a great deal, and, accordingly, moving their arms, body and head, sounding 1,000 times better than their formal speech a few minutes prior.
That always settles that argument.
As you try to add hand gestures back into your repertoire, the key to looking good is to move naturally. Don’t consciously try to jab one finger or clench your fist with your thumb on top. Don’t consciously gesture with one hand while keeping the other in your pocket. Instead, just forget about your hands and use them the way you normally do.
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