You’ve got the whole word in your hands

By Duffy Robbins

We’ve all met people who “can’t talk without using their hands.” These people are called “teachers.” Doing a lesson or a message, or even a short devotional, without using gestures is like going into battle unarmed (pun intended). And yet, developing good gestures is another one of those communication skills that requires practice.

Let’s look first at how not to gesture. Distracting gestures and body movements fall into two categories:

1. Those you do all the time (pushing your glasses up the bridge of your nose, stroking your beard, twiddling the ends of your mustache, and cracking your knuckles).

2. Those that you do only when you are speaking (clearing your throat, tapping your pencil on the lectern, flapping your note cards like a fan, rocking back and forth on your feet, and sweating profusely).

None of these physical gestures is bad the first time. But, when they are consistently repeated, they become a distraction. Teenagers begin keeping records of various gestures, entertain- ing themselves by scoring specific habitual body movements: pushed glasses = 5 points, hair tucks and head jerks = 3 points, clearing the throat = 2 points, flicking ashes from cigarette (-10 points). Like any other habit, we often don’t even notice the habit until someone points it out to us.

Sometimes, it isn’t the mannerism that detracts from our body movements; it’s the whole body posture. What follows are some of the default postures that disarm us and diminish the power of communication that happens through body movement. Why don’t you try them with your own body as you read through the list to see if any of them feel familiar?

The Bear Hug. Arms across the chest, each hand reaching to the opposite side of the body.

Reporting for Duty. Body is straight, arms are stiff, and wrists are nailed firmly to the side.

The Flesh Wound. One arm hangs uselessly at the side while the other arm reaches over and serves as a tourniquet above or below the elbow.

Vienna Boys Choir. Hands clasped at waist level with fingers intertwined.

The Firing Squad. Legs slightly spread, hands clasped tightly behind back.

Mr. Happy Pockets. keeping hands in pockets where they can jingle keys, coins, good luck charms, and the laser pen you confiscated from that 7th grade boy.

These postures lock us into positions that stifle good non- verbal expression. If those are some of the common mistakes, what are some guidelines for doing it right?

1. When not gesturing, park your hands some place that isn’t distracting (your pockets, the sides of your chair, or the edges of the podium).

2. Keep your gestures high up on your body frame. You don’t want the audience to have to choose between looking at you (your eyes and your face) or looking at your gesture. I usually stage my gestures about six to eight inches in front of my chin. To look at my gestures, you have to look at my face.

3. Match the breadth of your gestures to the size of your audience. A larger audience might mean more exaggerated gestures; a smaller audience allows for conversational gestures.

4. Time the gesture so that it best serves your point. Pounding the pulpit 10 seconds after the preacher has made his point leaves the audience either confused about the preacher’s intent or concerned about his reflexes. Neither response enhances the message.

5. Give your gestures a firm end point. Imagine that a gesture leaves a mark in the air (e.g., a vapor trail). There should be an obvious beginning point and an obvious end point. That helps define the gesture, and it aids the audience in interpreting its meaning.

6. Don’t overlook the power of stance. Pulling your chair closer to the circle, moving closer to the group, stepping over to one side near that kid who is detonating his underwear, even the way the feet are positioned if you’re standing: all of these help to communicate focus, boldness, intensity, importance.

Be attentive to how your whole body communicates. Let them hear your body talk.