Presentation Skills: Body LanguageThe Eyes Have It, And They're All On You...and Your Gestures
The most important visual is you. Let's start with one simple truth: The most important visual in a presentation is not that dazzling animation or PowerPoint slide overflowing with data. The most important visual is you. And when presenting, a large part of the "visual you" is conveyed in your body language. Study after study confirms that gesture, movement, and facial expression contribute significantly to helping your listeners grasp what you say.
One study, done several years ago at the University of Chicago, examined "the spontaneous, ephemeral, made-up-on-the fly" gesturing we do every day. It concluded that at least half of language is imagery and that body language gives form to that imagery more than spoken words.
"When we're speaking, we're thinking in two forms simultaneously," the study noted. "Speech and gesture are one system. Gesture is a hand movement that is as much a part of language as speech."
So, when you're presenting at the front of the room with your hands resting limp at your sides, you're diminishing your listeners' ability to appreciate your ideas. The same Chicago study claimed that speaking without gesturing could cause an audience to miss large chunks of your presentation.
So how do you gesture? And how do you make it both effective and natural?
Gestures need to arise from the content of talk and fit both the circumstance and your own personal style. However, they also need to be effective. There are some core guidelines to delivering effective gestures. What feels natural or comfortable is not always what works.
Many people gesture during a group presentation the same way they do when they're talking one-on-one. This is their accustomed habit so it feels comfortable. Other people's gestures become constrained both in size and frequency when they stand up in front of an audience. All these people are probably not gesturing at their best.
One-on-one gestures tend to be small. They are right for an audience of one, not twenty one or 501. The bigger the audience, the bigger the gestures need to be. One rough gauge is that gestures should be large enough to embrace most of the audience. This doesn't work for audiences of 1000s (unless your arms are really long), but it is a good reminder to scale up the gestures to match the size of the room.
One key to enlarging gestures is to start them from the shoulder. Wrist or elbow gestures are automatically smaller and tend to be limited in their variety, too. In fact, this is the single most common problem that drives people to "repetitive gesturing." If you keep making the same gesture, it rapidly becomes meaningless and ultimately annoying to the audience. The misguided feedback becomes "Stop talking with your hands!" The better feedback would be to start really talking with your hands-to make your hands more powerful and expressive.
Next, make sure your gestures are high enough. Low gestures draw the eyes of the audience down and away from your face. They become distractions. If you watch for it, you can sometimes catch people doing a vague imitation of penguins, with their hands flipping about at their waists. Penguins can be cute, but they're not good presenters.
Finally, tap your own natural style, but then expand on it. Try doing what feels "natural" and then make it bigger. If you don't naturally gesture at all, start by just adding one or two gestures to a sentence you practice in private. Try using words that have obvious gestures associated with them (large, tall, small, all, etc.). It probably will not feel or look natural at first, but, with a bit of practice, you can build on your innate gestural vocabulary to become a more powerful and eloquent speaker.