Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Ten gestures not to use

Research  commissioned by the iphone game Goggle  Eyes has just revealed our  ten most irritating gestures. Winner? (cue drum roll) two finger speech marks scratched in the air. Second?  ‘Talk to the hand’.  Do we care? Yes.

I’ve written elsewhere about the need for speakers to be authentic. Poorly chosen gestures are a sure way to undermine that. As the researchers say:

‘While a hand gesture can be a powerful communication tool, using too many or simply some of the more annoying ones is a sure-fire way to losing credibility.

‘Most of the more irritating gestures originated out of a need to communicate quickly and transcend language barriers – but it doesn’t take much for a gesture to seem cheesy or informal.

‘It’s about being able to recognise how to use gestures and for which audiences – sometimes they’re funny and entertaining but, often, they’re just annoying.’

Gestures are an integral part of oral communication,  not optional flourishes or decoration. Gestures must add meaning. They  help you emphasise, and they bring what you’re saying to life. You can clarify by drawing something in the air, or indicating a shape, or assist them to visualise stages in a process, or ‘underline’ by the way you use your ams and hands.

Gestures also bring energy  to your presentation.  The physicality of movement provides a dynamic element in what otherwise might have been static and uninteresting.

So how to make them work?  Two rules: gestures should arise naturally from what you say, and they should enhance and reinforce your meaning.

Good gestures are purposeful, definite and uncluttered. Bad gestures – like those irritating ones on the list, or  a lot of meaningless  flappy hands,  undermine rather than improving what you say.

Gestures become even more important when you’re in a large space or addressing a large crowd. The further away you are from someone, the more you need to use your whole body to gesture,  you can’t rely just on your face or small hand movements to make your point.

Think of it this way. If two of you are dining together you can speak in a low, intimate voice and your facial expressions can do a lot of the communicating. But if four, eight, twenty or two hundred people join you, you are going to need to speak up,  and be more vigorous with your hands and arms and face to communicate to those who are further away from you.

And finally don’t overlook the unintended gesture that comes to you as audience feedback. You may be saying all the words, but your audience  response is in the way they gesture back at you. Check out the way they look at you, sit, nod their heads, or knit their brows. They’re telling you if they’re with you or against you, if they understand and agree, if they need to hear more, or want you to finish.

The top ten irritants: 

  •  Speech marks
  • Extending palm outwards to mean ‘talk to the hand’
  • Tapping nose for ‘none of your business’
  • Touching fingers to thumb to mean ‘blah blah blah’
  • Making a pistol with your fingers
  • Punching your hand to suggest violence
  • Pointing at eye for ‘I’m watching you’
  • Making a phone with your hand to indicate ‘call me’
  • A fake yawn
  • Slicing your throat with a finger

 And some further reading from Six Minutes and The Eloquent Woman.


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