Speaking With Gestures

let your hands goThere are different physical levels of gesturing, each with their own meaning.

What should you do with those awkward appendages when you have to speak in public? I’m referring, of course, to your hands. There’s so much that can be said about this topic that Mark Bowden has written an entire book about it! (See his book, Winning Body Language.) I used to get very frustrated when I was working with a specific training company, because they kept trying to get me to keep my hands down by my sides when I spoke. It was never comfortable for me to hang my hands down by my sides and to keep them there. Later, when I began offering my own training programs, I’d tell my students to let their hands go wherever they felt they needed to go naturally. It wasn’t until I read Bowden’s book that it all made sense! Your hands are not meant to dangle down by your sides unless you’re in motion. Here are a few tips taken from Bowden’s book that might help you.

There are different physical levels of gesturing, each with their own meaning. Two very powerful levels are what Bowden refers to as the TruthPlane and the PassionPlane. The TruthPlane is the horizontal plane at the level of the navel. Gesturing with your hands at this level offers the audience a message that you are here to give, rather than to take away. Gesturing at this level garners trust.

The PassionPlane is the horizontal plane at the level of the heart. Gesturing at this level expresses an emotional attachment to your message. This is how you transfer feeling in your presentation. An effective balance between the TruthPlane and the PassionPlane levels of gesturing can significantly increase the impact of your message. Here is a real, live example of how powerful these gesture planes can be:

In one of my events, with absolutely no preliminary explanation, I conducted an experiment. I asked for a volunteer to step in front of the audience and follow my very specific instructions. Her task was to hold her hands down by her sides (Bowden calls this the GrotesquePlane.) I asked her to say the following words in whatever natural tone she felt, “I’ve told you everything I know.” I then asked the audience to write down the first thought that came to their minds about the speaker’s message. I then asked the speaker to gesture at the TruthPlane, and to repeat the same words in whatever natural tone felt right. Interestingly enough, her entire tone changed, just by virtue of the fact that her hands were at a different level. I asked the audience to note their immediate response. Next, we went to the PassionPlane. The same words were spoken, and once again, I saw a drastic change in the tone of the words. The audience noted their response. Later, when I polled the audience, it was clear that the speaker’s believability was highest when gesturing at the TruthPlane, was moderate at the PassionPlane, and was very low at the GrotesquePlane. This experiment actually included all the other planes as well, including the DisclosurePlane (level of the mouth), the ThoughtPlane (level of the head) and the EcstasyPlane (above the head.) The speaker appeared to give a completely different message, using the exact same words, based only on the level of gesturing.

So, what’s the lesson? The level at which you gesture can significantly change your intended message.

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