As you prepare a speech, your focus is very likely on what you believe your audience will hear. Questions that come to mind may include: Am I speaking clearly and not too fast? Am I speaking loud enough to be heard? Am I enunciating my words? All are valid questions, but they may cause you to overlook a critical aspect of any speech: what your audience sees.
Speech coach Andrew Dlugan notes that “Your body will naturally want to move as you speak. Don’t inhibit these natural gestures as they convey a sense that you are comfortable and confident in your message.” Awareness of this fact is the first step to ensuring that your non-verbal communication will be impactful and enhance your speech rather than distract from it.
Awareness and control of gestures begins with understanding that it is perfectly appropriate for them to be deliberate. The natural human inclination is to under-exaggerate gestures less they be perceived as unusual or distracting. However, in a Toastmasters speech, which is done before a room or auditorium, large gestures are necessary as the audience is more spread out than they would be at a conference table. Dlugan notes that these full-body gestures should originate from the shoulders.
Another key to using body language effectively is to recognize and avoid some common gesture mistakes. The first of these is to use no gestures at all. Statue-like poses can convey a sense of uneasiness which becomes a distraction. Misuse of hands is also a common failing. Hands in pockets, behind the back or fidgeting hands also do not convey the sense of poise and control necessary for an effective speech. My personal favorite bad gesture is what is sometimes referred to as “alligator arms.” In this case, arms are held close to the body which the elbows touching the bottom of the rib cage and the hands never extending beyond shoulder width. Try it (if you’re not already making alligator arms as you read this!) and you’ll see why it’s important to start arm gestures at the shoulders rather than the elbows.
The opposite of avoiding mistakes is recognizing and implementing effective gestures. There’s no single laundry list, but some basic concepts should be kept in mind. Gestures should coincide with your key points. As Dlugan notes, they should mimic the topic on which you are speaking. Allow your body language to serve as a symbol for an object or action on which you are speaking. Variation is also an important technique to keep in mind. Some gestures may start to feel comfortable, but be sure not to come back to them too often.
Finally, don’t forget facial expressions. The audience will notice gestures with arms and hands, but they will most likely begin by looking at your face. Though sometimes uncomfortable, practicing in front of a mirror ensures that your facial expressions convey the emotions you want associated with your topic.
Lastly, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Take some time to watch the gestures of successful speakers and learn practice incorporating them into your own speeches.