Why Gestures Are Essential to Leaders Who Want to Speak Authentically

By Lou Solomon

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A few months ago, an executive named Lisa shared some bad advice she received. She said, “I’ve been told I gesture too much, but it’s hard for me to keep my hands idle.”

Hear this. If you talk with your hands — it’s a good thing. Psychologists say those gestures probably help you express your thoughts, speak more concisely, and use more confident language.

Research shows that gesturing can even convey energy, passion, and trustworthiness. On the other hand, less animated speakers seem to lack passion. A speaker with idle hands is seen as disconnected.

This does not mean that nervous, repetitive movement is effective. Fidgeting is distracting. So are extreme, flailing gestures that are way out of bounds and have no connection to the message.

In Lisa’s case, she could relax when permitted to gesture naturally. She became more engaging and exciting to observe. Because she was more animated, we could “feel” her passion and commitment to the message.


TED Talks

There’s plenty of research to back up what we observed in Lisa. Here are the findings when Science of People analyzed hand gestures in TED Talks:

  • The least popular presenters used an average of 272 hand gestures
  • The most popular presenters used an average of 465 hand gestures.

When speakers use natural gestures to animate their message, we experience the symphony of a message, and that symphony is Authentic Speaking.


The Importance of Gestures to Authentic Speaking

Authentic Speaking synchronizes the speaker’s transmission, vocal presence, and physical delivery.

In other words, body language is crucial in helping us communicate our motivations to others. Our body responds when we feel passion for a topic. Natural gestures synchronize with the message and transmit believability to listeners.

Typically, this isn’t a conscious thought process by listeners, but they instinctively feel that when a speaker is more animated, they are credible and genuinely into their topic.

The congruence — or lack of congruence — between our words and how our hands move offers a clue to our passion and sincerity. Research suggests that gestures add vital code. A speaker whose hands stay stiff at their sides except when using the remote clicker doesn’t do much to convince listeners of their passion.


4 Categories of Gestures

There are four main categories of gestures: descriptive, emphatic, suggestive, and prompting.

Descriptive gestures build out the meaning of words to enhance a verbal message. They help the audience to visualize the size, shape, movement, location, function, and number of objects. These gestures speed up interpretation.

Emphatic gestures underscore what is said with emotion and conviction. A clenched fist suggests strong feelings like anger or determination. If you want to join them on a project, they might put their hand out and bring it to themselves.

Suggestive gestures are symbols of ideas and emotions, and they help the speaker to create a desired mood or express a particular thought. An open palm suggests giving or receiving, usually an idea, while a shrug of the shoulders indicates ignorance, perplexity, or irony.

Prompting gestures are used to help evoke a desired response from the audience. If you want your listeners to raise their hands, apply or perform some specific action, you’ll enhance the response by doing it yourself as an example.


What’s next?

Finding your natural rhythm in gesturing is part of the larger goal of communicating to the audience as your best, authentic self.

As a starting point, pay attention to how you use gestures in everyday conversations. The next step is to consider how to make your points in a larger conversation or a speech. Feel the emphasis and enthusiasm first, and let your gestures respond.

There’s no need to get too technical with these categories. Some people try too hard to use gestures, which makes them look clumsy and inauthentic.

The most popular speakers use gestures in a way that fits the message, and when that happens, we scarcely notice. We only notice a satisfying feeling of having experienced the symphony of Authentic Speaking.


Want to Practice Your Gestures?

If you are looking to practice your gesturing and authentic speaking skills, try our Your Authentic Speaking Style™ course. Interact Studio’s acclaimed in-person on-camera learning experience will help you find your voice, amplify your presence and grow your influence.

If you want to learn more about Your Authentic Speaking Style™, click here.

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