Use Gestures to Engage Your Audience

What makes one speaker appear confident, natural, and enthusiastic while another speaker with an equally important message appears nervous, scripted, and boring? Often it’s the speaker’s use of gestures—those natural body movements that animate and punctuate any message.

Gestures include more than just your hands and arms. For powerful and compelling speakers, the term “gestures” includes all the body movement that takes place above the waist, including the head, neck, shoulders, and torso movements.

Fortunately, we all have a natural, easy way of using our hands, arms, and upper body when we talk to someone. The way you gesture is part of your everyday communication style. But many business professionals are far more animated at breaks and in side conversations than when they get up to give a presentation.

How many times have you witnessed the following scenario: During a speaker’s formal remarks, she appears stiff and her gestures seem contrived. You think to yourself that she must be nervous and unprepared. And even though her message is important, you just can’t seem to pay very close attention. But then, during the question and answer portion of the presentation, the speaker suddenly comes alive. Her upper body is relaxed and animated. Her hand and arm movements actively reinforce her key points. She seems genuinely connected to her audience. You feel that you learned more during the short Q&A than during the entire formal presentation.

Such a scene is common in the business world, as people mistakenly believe they can’t “be themselves” during both the formal and informal segments of a presentation.

Gestures can effectively showcase your enthusiasm, confidence, and authority. They can help bring a presentation to life and hold the audience’s interest and attention. Effective gestures clarify and support your message, add dramatic interest to your ideas, and stimulate audience involvement. They are an essential part of your craft. But since they are most useful in supporting your message, be careful that you don’t go overboard. You don’t want your audience focusing more on your whirling hands or wiggling shoulders than on your message.

Mastering the use of gestures is easy if you follow six simple rules. After you review the following rules, record yourself giving a presentation. Watch the tape/DVD to assess your own use of gestures. Then, focus on the rules you seem to break most often. With a little practice, your gestures during presentations will be as natural as during your everyday conversations.

Rule #1: Avoid Closing Off the Mid-Line of the Body: Imagine that you have a line running from the top center of your head, down your face and torso, and into the floor between your legs. When you cross or cover that mid-line, you send a subtle but powerful signal to the audience that you are uncomfortable—that you are protecting yourself. At that point, the audience has a hard time trusting and believing that you are a reliable messenger. You simply don’t look confident. Therefore, any gesture or body position that crosses, covers, protects, restricts, or hides your mid-line is a weak stance or position to display.

Rule #2: Make Your Gestures Strong and Precise: Look in the mirror and notice your natural arm and hand positions. Hold various objects—a large ball, a box, a food container, a pillow, a pen, a penny—and notice your hand positions. When you put the objects down, try to replicate those hand positions and see the variety that will result. Keep your hands strong and firm, and practice going from strong and tight to limp and loose. Notice the difference in what it feels like and what it looks like. Which gesture gives you more presence and authority?

Rule #3: Vary Your Use of Symmetrical Gestures: Symmetrical gestures are when both your hands and/or arms are doing the same thing. Asymmetrical gestures are when your hands and/or arms are doing two different things. Symmetrical gestures, such as both arms bent up at the elbow with palms up, convey openness and inclusion, while asymmetrical gestures, such as one arm up and one at your side, convey precision and authority. Since both kinds of gestures are important, practice doing both.

Rule #4: Keep Gestures High: Make sure your arms are up when you speak, and always gesture above the waist. However, be careful that you don’t gesture so high that your hands cover your face or neck. Gestures below the waist show less energy. Move your arms out to the side at eye level and then above your head. Practice moving your arms at different levels—always above the waist. Get used to the feeling of having your hands and arms in many different positions.

Rule #5: Make Sure Your Gestures Are in Sync With Your Message: Use gestures to emphasize a key point and punctuate a sentence. If you’re talking about some exciting new happening within your company, your gestures should mimic your excitement. If you’re standing with your arms at your side and talking about exciting news, people won’t catch your enthusiasm. Notice how naturally your hands and arms move when you feel strongly about something as opposed to when you feel concerned or worried. Get used to how your natural gestures feel. Gestures that are out of sync with your message look contrived.

Rule #6: Stay Connected: Remember that your hands and arms are connected to your torso, shoulders, head, and neck. When these parts of your body are actively involved in your delivery, you will convey even more passion and physical energy to your audience. Therefore, move your torso, head, and neck toward the audience to invite greater participation and connection.

Gesture for Success

As with anything new in life, practicing gestures might feel and look awkward and uncomfortable at first. But think of how awkward you felt the first time you drove a car or caught a ball. The more you did it, the more you improved. Today, you probably drive your car for miles without giving the steps or actions involved a second thought. The same is true of using gestures when speaking. With enough practice in different settings, you will be able to use gestures naturally, and every idea you present will come across with increased confidence, enthusiasm, and authority.

About the Author

Angela DeFinis is an expert in professional public speaking. As a presentation skills trainer, speech coach and founder/CEO of DeFinis Communications, she has spent over twenty-five years helping business professionals find solutions to their communication challenges and develop a broader repertoire of potent speaking skills. Her message and approach create positive, personal, and lasting change. Contact Angela at info@definiscommunications.com or call (415) 258-8176.

< Go Back