Be careful about negative body language when speaking!

Credibility: 15 Facets to Speaking Professionalism: #2 – Gestures

For aspiring and experienced speakers alike, each aspect of credibility is to be closely guarded and continually built upon. This series of articles will focus on 15 facets of credibility that must exist for all speakers to succeed over the long run. “Instant Credibility” must continue to be nurtured for a career to continue. If you are building from the ground up, each point must be examined and properly attended to in order to build deep roots on the speaking circuit.

Facet #2: Gestures

Effective gestures are the hallmark of an experienced speaker. Great pains must be taken to ensure that movements on stage are deliberate, natural, and practiced.

Nervousness is at the heart of most pointless gestures. What should one do with their hands, anyway? When you are not using you hands and arms to actively make a gesture, keep them comfortably at your side, so as not to distract from the presentation, and to add to the impact of the gestures you purposely use at other times.

18 Crutch Gestures to Avoid:

1. Hands in Pockets

2. Hand-wringing

3. Hands behind back

4. Elbows in, hands out

5. Hands on lecturn

6. The Finger Steeple or Hand Purse (interlocked fingers)

7. Pointing in general

8. Number indications palms out – always use palms in – your hand becomes their hand

9. Fiddling with rings or other jewelry

10. Beard/Mustache stroking

11. Head scratching

12. Arm crossing

13. Hair flipping

14. Ear or nose checking (it happens more than you’d think!)

15. Lip smacking

16. Pacing

17. Swinging side to side or back to front

18. Leaning against the lecturn or furniture

The best way to evaluate the gestures you use is to practice on film. Take notes on what motions you make, when you make them, and most importantly, WHY you make them. Once you eliminate these crutch gestures, you can effectively replace them with deliberate motions to enhance a point, gain attention, and illustrate action, often cutting descriptive prose from your speech with a simple but practiced action-gesture.

There are three gesture zones commonly used by speakers.


When arms stay at your side, or remain relatively close to your body, the gesture does not provide significant impact, and may provide a calming or questioning effect to the statement made.

Over the Top

When arms are over the head or completely outstretched in a quick fashion, a sense of urgency, surprise, or even danger is created, dependent of the speaking accompanying them. Stepping to a different level on stage, perhaps onto a chair or table, creates a stronger image, and draws even greater attention to the speaker when appropriately used.

Below the Belt

Bending down may create a “private” moment even with an audience of thousands. Similar to lowering the tone of your voice, which you would do in conjunction with this move, the audience will lean in to what you have to say, and feel you are speaking to them on a more individual basis.

Action gestures often take place in all three zones, whether we run, pretend to catch a ball/ride a bike/climb a ladder, or indicate height and width. Go over your speeches with a fine-tooth comb to find your opportunities to use an action gesture – they keep your audience involved, and keep you away from crutch gestures. Make sure you incorporate your whole body in action gestures, to avoid making them look mechanical. If your arms seem to move independently of your head and legs, you will appear robotic instead of practiced.

Practice your gestures on film or in the mirror. If they seem too big to you, they are probably just right for your audience. If you are having trouble becoming comfortable with large gestures, practice with Extremely Exaggerated gestures, and when the nervousness hits, your toned down actions will still emphasize your point.

Gestures will separate the pedestrian speaker from the professional. Lack of gestures indicate nervousness, unfamiliarity with the material, and the absence of self-confidence. Gestures that are out of place, robotic, or understated will sap the credibility of the most educated speaker. No matter how interesting your words, exclusively watching lips move will cause even the most dedicated audience to nod off. Your message should be important enough for you to incorporate your whole body while presenting it!

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Rich Hopkins is a speaker, coach, and consultant who aligns his clients with their own potential. He has 20 years of business background in marketing, sales, and customer service. He consults with individuals, student groups, non-profit organizations, and corporations.

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