One of the things I see in every presentation training session I deliver is the overuse and incorrect implementation of gestures by participants.
Gestures are an expressive method of visually communicating your message as you talk. For example, you say something like, “There are two options we can choose from…” And as you say the word “two” you also gesture the number using your hand (perhaps holding up two fingers).
Now here’s the painful truth:
Many presenters take the point of gestures way too literally and actually practice which gesture they are going to do when they say particular words. This is a bad way of preparing for your presentation as well as a bad way to think about gestures.
Firstly, it is a bad way to prepare for your presentation because it forces the presenter to have to remember too much. Imagine, as presenter, you already have to consider the content you need to deliver, how to handle audience reaction, how to modify your content delivery to suit the audience’s reaction, fielding questions, incorporating your slides, and so on. Add the additional complication of trying to remember which gesture to do and when and your presentation is doomed to fail.
Secondly, I think practicing gestures is a bad way to think about gesturing. If you need to practice your gestures you will look like a robot on the stage and the gestures will come across as a staged part of the presentation. When your audience senses something is staged you lose some credibility.
Let’s imagine some staged gestures. Consider the following statement: “I had to wake up really early this morning, drive my kids to school, and then clean the house.” If we were preparing our gestures in advance this statement would probably have us preparing to gesture at words such as “early”, “drive”, and “clean”. You can therefore imagine how ridiculous it would look for a presenter to practice these gestures and then try to time the delivery appropriately on stage. A bit of an extreme example, but staged gestures always look bad.
So how should we do gestures?
To make your presentation truly engaging, to have the audience truly engaged, to have credibility, to have the audience feel your presentation is being delivered in a honest and fluid manner, you need to gesture like this:
Gesture naturally as if you were having a conversation with the audience. If you have to force your gestures then it will not look authentic. Simply talk with your hands the same way you would if you met a friend in the shopping mall and were talking to them about your day.
Remember, that gestures delivered naturally are generally meaningless. We add meaning through the rest of our visual and vocal communication and the gestures just serve to emphasize what we are talking about. If you evaluate the current way you gesture in your presentations compared to playing charades you will know if you have to change what you are doing. That is, without sound, if the audience could work out what you are talking about then you’re probably overdoing it.
I’d love to get your feedback and thoughts below.