The Power of Gestures

By Robert Kahn
Robert Kahn

Ensure the story about you is the right story

In the absence of a story, people make up their own story about you. So instead of a basic story, why not have them make up a great story about you?

One of the starting points to this great story is great presentation skills

This operates at two levels: working from the ‘outside-in’ you can focus on body language, stance, volume, and gestures. Working from the other angle, the ‘inside-out’ approach is to master self-talk and nerves, remaining focused and open, both internally and externally.

To achieve this, your presentation skills must be ‘in use’ while you are multiprocessing; in other words, you need to master presentation and impact skills as you present, take challenging questions, stay aware and always be ‘available’.

Presenting content requires a large sense of self-awareness

Therefore build the muscle to present before you get in the room. One way to do this is to create a library of meaningful and impactful gestures.

While presenting, most people confuse gestures from movements

I’d like to juxtapose ‘gestures’ from ‘movements.’ Movements tend to be automatic, unconscious reactions, sometimes fairly erratic, and usually unplanned in nature. Most people don’t even know they are making movements until they are pointed out, or they see it on video. An example would be pacing in front of an audience, making windmill-like movements, or rocking / swaying. Gestures, on the other hand, are coordinated movements with purpose, timing, and meaning. One of the major benefits is that gestures slow you down, make you look more articulate and help the audience understand you better.

With gestures in mind, an expert was Virigina Satir*, a noted American author and family therapist who identified 5 archetypal gestures families. Archetypal refers to the fact they are universal, triggering similar reactions worldwide, regardless of language or culture. Satir’s categories can help you make better gestures, and to eliminate the less effective gestures you might be using.

The 5 gesture families are listed below. They are not the end-all to gestures and are simply the starting place for effectiveness.

1. Leveler: Like hands on an ironing board moving from the center outwards. The Leveler is associated with an over-powering state. Levelers might impact the mood in the conversation and this can be useful depending on the context of the situation, helping your audience to respond positively to you. As a strong gesture, use with caution.

2. Placater: Pleading hands is the posture of a person who is begging. This position is used to elicit certain kinds of perceptions, including guilt and… well, placation. “Help me”, “I’m open”, “I want to please you”. This is a no weapons position and, when overused, might erode your impact.

3. Blamer: Otherwise known as ‘weapons in my hand’, the Blamer is rather self-explanatory - pointing outward and toward something or someone else. “It’s your fault”, “It’s down to you”. Because it is so strong and “in your face” my suggestion is to only use in the positive, encouraging your audience to react positively.

4. Computer: This is the super-reasonable, logical processor. This individual typically does not engage in emotion and may even objectivize everything. “I’m the authority on this one”, “I’m reasonable, logical and sensible”, “Here are the facts”. This is a great gesture to adopt when pausing to think, taking audience questions or actively listening while slowly nodding.

5. Distracter: Typically someone who might be seen with flighty emotions, asymmetrical positions (one arm up one down) with varied facial expressions and which could land in a distracting fashion. A Distracter tends to shift people’s moods and I would not use very often much preferring symmetry over any asymmetry.

Posture and stance convey different messages

It’s important to use these gestures at the right time and place and ensure your gestures move from left to right when you are facing your audience. For increased impact, buy-in and cohesiveness, watch the video now and ensure the story you convey is the right one.

* Virigina Satir was a strong influencer on NLP. A psychotherapist, she is known especially for her approach to family therapy. Her most well-known books are Conjoint Family Therapy, 1964, Peoplemaking, 1972, and The New Peoplemaking, 1988. She is also known for creating the Virginia Satir - Change Process Model, which was developed through clinical studies.