Hi, this is Steve Aguirre. This post will discuss why gestures are important, critical considerations when gesturing, helpful gestures to use when communicating, and how to practice improving your use of gestures.
Gestures are not always universal. Why? Because gestures mean different things in different countries. For example, thumbs up means ‘great’ in the U.S. but in Bangladesh it is an insult.
The A-okay sign means OK in many countries but in Brazil it is considered rude.
What is considered good luck in the United States? When people cross their fingers. However, when you cross your fingers in Vietnam it’s not even in the same area code. It is actually a version of the middle finger.
Numbers can be represented in different ways as well. In the Quentin Tarantino Film Inglorious Bastards, the main character shows how we visually count to the number three or four with our fingers. In the movie you quickly find it is different in the U.S. compared to Germany. First, the American way.
Next, the Germany way.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In Pixar’s ‘woke’ movie Wall-E there isn’t any dialogue until the 22nd minute and the first human dialogue is in the 39th minute, however without any dialogue this movie drives so much emotion. Don’t even get me started on the movie ‘UP’ and the section without dialogue. If you haven't seen it then search 'love story of carl and ellie in up' on youtube. My wife and I cry like babies every time we watch it. Yes a picture is worth a thousand words and gestures is one way to paint a picture.
Why do gestures matter? Because they help people better understand what you are saying. How? Because you are adding a visual component to the words you are saying. It can be hard to pick up everything when you are listening and gesturing helps. Second, gestures make you more engaging. Without a single gesture you might be considered, BORING! Gestures can liven things up a bit. However, keep in mind that gestures should be authentic to you.
What should you take into consideration when gesturing?
Pointed vs Open. When I point, it is accusatory and can make some people uncomfortable. However, when I open my hand, I come across more open and less accusatory. What to do? Keep those hands open and show your palms.
Size of gestures. The more people in the audience, the bigger the gesture should be. On the other hand, if it is a smaller audience you should have smaller gestures. For example, if I said, “we have a big opportunity.” It would look weird if I demonstrated this with a large exaggerated gesture, when speaking to one friend one-on-one.
You might come across like a WEIRDO! You don’t want that. However, in front of 1000 people, when you say those same words a large gesture would be fine. What to do? Adjust the size of the gesture to your audience.
Congruence of gestures. If I say we should totally hang out and I nod my head as if I were saying no, then you would be really confused. You would think, are we hanging out or not? I don’t get it. Sure, you may get laugh when you are incongruent but a laugh is not worth the cost of confusion when you are communicating. What to do? Make sure your gestures are consistent and congruent with what you are saying.
Show your hands whenever possible. If I hide my hands in my pockets or keep my hands off camera then this can convey someone who isn’t as trustworthy. Is this silly? Absolutely, but it is a thing. Hitting the elevator button multiple times hoping it comes faster is a thing. Singing in the car and getting caught. It’s a thing. Not showing hands is a thing. What do? Show your hands in an authentic and natural way.
Avoid repetitive gestures. Many people repeat the same gesture over and over with their hands and it is super distracting and awkward. Other distractions include grabbing the lectern for dear life, tapping fingers, or pen clicking. What to do? Eliminate repetitive distractive gestures that show you feel uncomfortable.
What are some gestures to consider using when we are communicating?
Organization Gestures. How can we come across organized? By using numbers. For example, you would say my first point and signal a one. My second point and signal a two and so forth. Numbers help keep people organized.
Comparison and Contrast Gestures. When you are comparing and contrasting, hand gestures can be really helpful. For example, men and women. Men on one hand men have larger muscles and women have more elastic muscles. Another example, if you compare a big opportunity with a small opportunity which is a perfect situation where gestures help drive message clarity. This helps organize the brain.
Connection Gestures. One of the best ways to convey connection is to signal toward your heart or your mind. If I say "you mean the world to me" or "this is really important" and you point to your heart then the other person will understand the importance. Moreover, if you say "this is something I have thought about" and you point to your head then it helps with understanding.
Action Gestures. Action gestures can bring a little personality to your point. For example, if I said I was running and demonstrate the act of running. You probably would smile or even laugh if I exaggerated a little. Pick a spot in your talk where there is an action such as walking, writing, eating, etc. Using gestures to demonstrate actions helps people to fully understand.
Size Gestures. We all think of things in different sizes and gestures can help clarify size. For example, you might say It was roughy the size of a baseball and gesture the size of a baseball with your hands. Alternatively, it was the size of a shoe box and signal a shoe box with your hands.
Finally, how can you improve your gesturing?
First, practice in the mirror in order to find the gestures that are most natural for you. This mirror is also a great place to experiment with gestures. If you have an important meeting or critical point, don't underestimate the power of a gesture. For example, if you pause and say this is really important for our company and you point to the table. The audience will have an even deeper understanding.
Second, pick at least two to three spots in your message where you will intentionally use gestures. For example, if you were speaking with your boss you might say, "I really need a raise" while gesturing to raise the roof.
JUST KIDDING! Do not do this. You will come across like a clown.
However, coming up with a few points where you will gesture is really helpful. Be thoughtful about where to add a gesture or two so you come across more clear and impactful. At first, gestures seem unnatural and silly but with a little practice you will improve quickly. If you gesture well then you will come across more trustworthy, engaging, and easier to listen to. My challenge to you is to come up with three 'go to' gestures that you use on a regular basis that are not repetitive and are somewhat unique. Go experiment!