Thursday, June 2, 2011

Gestures - 7 Questions Before You Make a Move

Marcel Marceau 1946-2007
Grab A Rope
Inside an Imaginary Box
The Lean
Climbing a Ladder

All famous Mime routines - and I've seen them all from speakers on stage. For the most part, these gestures are planned, though I'm sure one can spontaneously ad-lib a practiced move with experience.

Natural gestures often include raising arms up in exuberance or frustration, pointing, fist-pumping, pointing, showing high vs. low & wide vs. narrow - we're used to using these gestures in regular conversation, though they can certainly be planned and built into a presentation.

The more I read other speaking coaches blogs, the more I see the admonition come up against 'planned gestures'. They claim such gestures come off wooden, mistimed, or over-the-top.

I beg to differ. Planned gestures only look wooden, mistimed, and over-the-top when they are poorly planned and under-practiced. Gestures are nothing more than silent words. When words are poorly used, they sound terrible and distract from the speech. When gestures are misused, the same problem arises.

We've all seen wooden gestures from speakers who are less than practiced - they say "I looked at the grand mountain-scape" and THEN sweep their arm, because they know they are supposed to, but forgot to do it as the spoke the line. It is these offenders that coaches rail against, and who give 'planned gestures' a bad name.

I agree that too many big 'planned gestures' - such as rope climbing, swimming in a river, or driving a car - can distract from the speech, and even cost credibility. But I've also seen speakers literally fall to the floor, ski from the top of two chairs, and roll on the floor as they landed from an airplane jump - effectively.

As for natural gestures, they too have their downfalls. For too many, its natural to continually talk with their hands, to point at people, or use the same gesture over and over to no effect. Unless you learn to plan which natural gestures you'll be using, you could end up looking repetitive or disorganized, at best, or at worst, plain rude.

So plan your gestures - from your simple arm movements, movements from right to left, and shoulder shrugs to your 'Thinking Look', your "He's Safe!", to your "Imaginary Box", if you must. Just ask yourself these seven questions before going ahead with them:

1. Does it help make the point?
2. If you don't do it, will it hurt the point?
3. Is it easy to do?
4. Do I have more than one grandiose, planned gesture every 5 - 10 minutes?
5. Is it an anchor move - one that I will use repeatedly? Should it be?
6. Can I do it while speaking the line?
7. Do I have time to practice it enough to make it look 'unplanned'?

Bonus Thought - this is where filming your practice is invaluable. How do you look when you do these gestures? As good as you thought? What adjustments should be made?

I believe in planned gestures the same way I believe in planned words. With practice, you are able to mostly say what you want to without memorization - but there are some phrases you MUST get right. With practice, gestures work the same. You'll train yourself to be natural with your average gestures, and you'll practice your way to some incredible movements that will be memorable and effective.

And unlike the world of mimes, you'll be able to Speak & Deliver, not just Act & Deliver!

2nd Bonus Thought - notice in this video there is 'over-acting' - because they had no words at their disposal. You do - scale it back just enough to combine your words and actions effectively.


  1. Great post, Rich! Totally agree. Practice is the unseen part of the iceberg's what keeps everything afloat.

  2. Absolutely. Just like choosing the right word takes planning, so does choosing the right gesture. Also, just like a planned (scripted) speech can seem stiff and unnatural, planned gestures can seem stiff and unnatural. The key to both, it seems to me, is to make them natural--with practice. I'm learning it the hard way, but I'm learning it. And congrats on the district win!

  3. Rich, I'm still waiting to see a speaker with rehearsed "big" gestures or facial expressions who looks natural to me. A well-rehearsed "big" gesture seems to work best in a humorous speech, which lends itself to more theatricality, and I will certainly laugh and be entertained by such an action.

    Rehearsed "natural" gestures, such as a shrug, a point, an raised hand, are easier to take than the aforementioned "mime" type movements.

    I think it's a matter of taste. I find it distracting when a speaker looks like he/she is acting -- and some of the top speakers do this. I just can't suspend my disbelief.

    Also, you I are often talking about different kinds of speakers; TM/motivational/keynote-type speeches are a different animal than business/training/seminar-type presentations. It's really two different worlds.

  4. I agree you should always consider your setting and audience expectations when planning a presentation. Words, vocal variances, and gestures will all change based on the audience size, setting, and purpose.

    I also agree that bigger planned gestures work better in humorous situations, as a general rule. But I would submit that even in business/training/seminar-type presentations, there is always room for humor, which means they is often room for bigger gestures, if they help make the point. I wouldn't use the same gesture scale in front of 20 that I would in front of 200 or 2000, but a well-practiced gesture can be appropriate in most any setting. Even if most is only 51%.

    For the record, my posts, other than those directly titled "Toastmasters Friday", are geared towards professional speaking of all types, be they motivational, training, or seminar-type presenters. Every audience is filled with humans looking to be captivated and entertained. While a 'big, planned gesture' isn't always appropriate, done well, it can be very effective.

    The qualifier is 'done well' - which means well-considered, well-practiced, and well-performed, which means effort and time most speakers aren't willing to put into their talks.

  5. Oh, I think humor is critical in business presentations! I still consider it a different style of presenting, though, even when humor is part of it.

    And I agree that most speakers aren't willing to give the prep time to their presentations to make things like practiced gestures look smooth!



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