Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why do we make speakers feel bad about gesturing?

Almost every time I have a workshop about speaking techniques, there's one tactic that gets more negative comments than any other: Gesturing.

In the worst example, a young scientist whom the group had just watched on video was asked how she thought she did. Her task was to deliver a brief three-point message, and she did it well in about a minute and a half.

"Oh, I know I gestured too much," she said right away. "I do that. I know it's wrong."

I didn't remember a lot of gesturing and we had plenty of time, so I said, "Let's just look at that video again." Sure enough, she'd gestured just once or twice in 90 seconds--far from excessive.

It's an apologetic reaction I hear again and again from speakers I coach. I talk with my hands, I'm sorry...I don't want to look like a windmill. Many trainees cite their heritage, saying I'm Italian/Greek/French/name your ethnicity, I can't help it.

I shudder especially when I hear that speakers have had their heritage or gender blamed in this regard. This kind of chiding of speakers, I'm guessing, is just another traditional way to get people to shut up when you don't think they have the right to speak. It's intimidating, and the criticism sticks with you as a lasting admonishment.

In fact, most people gesture, although some cultures have raised it to an artform, as you can see in Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture, a visual guidebook that translates Italian gestures and their meanings using pictures as well as literal translation.

Gestures are expressive, but even if they're not connected to the words you're speaking, they serve several important purposes in your public speaking and presentations. While it's true that too much of anything--a particular gesture done over and over, or all gestures, all the time--can be distracting to the audience, there's nothing inherently wrong with gestures. Quite the opposite: If you were to immobilize your hands, you'd find it difficult to speak, since gestures help your brain produce speech in the first place. That's true whether you plan your gestures, or use them without thinking.

So just to review some of the points in my post The all-in-one on gestures for public speaking: 12 great tips, gesturing can:
  • Help you speak--that is, help you form words and get them out fluently--and help you avoid speaking stumbles, like "ums" and "uhs"
  • Persuade your audience, by conveying sympathy or empathy, and by mimicry of their movements
  • Revive an audience's flagging attention with a visual redirect
  • Emphasize points by underscoring them, and sometimes, by emphasizing negative or positive trends in your words
Toastmasters offers this booklet about gesturing, a good basic guide if you are just starting to use this important speaking tool. Gesture on--and remember, don't make yourself, or anyone else, feel bad about gesturing.

(Photo from albertstraub's Flickrstream)

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