"What Do I Do With My Hands?" - How To Use Gestures Effectively

On many training sessions and workshops conversation and questions regularly relate to body language and the use of gestures.  I find it surprising the range of conflicting advice that has been offered to people and am sometimes even alarmed at what the advice recommends.

As an example I once worked on a one to one session with a senior figure from a financial services company.  On meeting this person he came across as confident, knowledgeable and to put no finer point on it looked every inch the successful executive.  However he had an issue with presenting and at the heart of that was he had been told in the past quite forcibly by a particular trainer that he should not use his hands while presenting.  Following that advice simply made the act of presenting an ordeal for him because what he was being asked to do was clearly unnatural for him.  The more presenting he did the more he disliked it and the worse he got.  Inappropriate advice created a vicious circle which proved challenging to break.

There is a lot of confusion about gestures and how they should be used Non-verbal communication and gestures like facial expression, are a natural form of human expression.  To deny ourselves the use of these tools is to reduce the means of communication - to reduce our personal communication bandwidth if you like, and thereby lose some of the colour, energy and quality of our message.

People I work alongside often say they "talk with their hands" as though this is something to be avoided, that it undermines their meaning or even in extreme cases that it opens them up to ridicule.  I strongly believe that gesture is an integral part of a person's individual communication style and that the most effective gestures are those that are naturally linked to your speech.  Be natural, let the gestures come as they will and your hands will look after themselves and they will also support your message. 

Coming at this from the opposite direction, deny movement in your hands and for many people the gesture will creep out in more destructive ways - shoulder movement, swaying, head movement, shuffling, grimacing and even rapid blinking.  In the absence of a natural outlet for expression your energy will find an unnatural one!

In terms of starting positions for an interview on camera, try not to think about specific gestures, rather, keep your hands in a neutral position somewhere in front of you, around belt height, that allows you freedom to move.  Don't interlock your fingers but hold your hands lightly one in the other.  If your hands are free to move, they will move because that's what humans do when we speak.

Interestingly, gesture is important to the deliverer as much as to the recipient of the message.  Watch anyone talking on their mobile phone.  Chances are they are moving their hands during their conversation even though the person to whom they are speaking can't see them.  In that case, the gestures are helping the speaker think and providing some good people-watching for the rest of us!

There is some received wisdom that talks about how much of communication is visual.  I think that body language in general and "non-verbal communication" sometimes is over-emphasised in communications training.  A 1971 study reporting that 55% of communication is non-verbal (38% is tone of voice and 7% is what you say) is often used out of context.  It is not a rule that applies to any and all communications situations.  It applies when there is a dissonance between the non-verbal communication and the words being spoken.

Use your hands naturally and let them help you speak! 

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