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Category Archives: Gestures

Swim to the Deep End!

Thirty minutes into a challenging indoor cycling class when I was “seeing Elvis,” the instructor said, “If you have anything left in the tank, turn the tension up one more time.”  At that moment I had an epiphany:  the human body is capable of much more than the mind allows.  Once we push past the mental barrier that yells, “I can’t! It’s too hard!,” we find that we are stronger, smarter, and open to new possibilities.   Medal-winning athletes know this, and so do successful speakers.

When you are about to stand up and speak, what’s going through your mind?  Odds are it’s something like, “Let me just get through this without embarrassment,” or “Please don’t let me trip on the electrical cord.”  Chances are that you are not thinking, “I can’t wait to take a risk and really put myself out there.”

This blog post is an invitation to let your body move past the limits that your mind imposes.  If you want to really impress your audience and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste, consider incorporating one of these physical techniques:

  1. Change your volume.  If you are naturally on the church mouse end of the continuum, try speaking much louder.  If your style is closer to the carnival barker, try softening your voice.  Notice what it does to the rest of your delivery.
  2. Sing loudly right before you present.  You will be more energized and relaxed when you begin your presentation.
  3. Make a sound effect where you would normally use an adjective.  Go from bland to “Now that got my attention!”
  4. Step away from the lectern.  It’s a crutch.  Try speaking in the “magic circle” – that space front and center of the room.  Your audience will thank you.
  5. Break the wall.  Most speakers deliver their presentation at a “professional” distance from their audience.  Try moving closer into the personal space for an important point and then move back.

Break the mental barrier that keeps us stuck in the safe-and-average shallow end and move into the risky-and-fabulous deep end of the pool!  Your body should be in the lead role, not your mind.

– Barbara


Jane Fonda’s Autobiography: “My Life So Far”

I know I am getting older. And not only because of the number of times I have circled the sun, but because I find myself enjoying new interests like bird watching, peony-growing, and reading non-fiction.  Jane Fonda’s book was a revelation.

I admire and applaud her for writing with such intelligence and honesty. I was stunned by the duality of her life – what it looked like in pictures versus what was going on within. I was shocked that she shared so much about her very flawed parents, her fear, shame, disease to please, eating disorder and sex life. Fonda’s intellectual curiosity, transformation and journey to self are inspiring. Her true commitment to social and political change (especially for girls and women) is tremendous. This book is long, but it is very well structured, and filled with photos, celebrity insights, great quotes, and a comprehensive history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who developed a style known as the Method. He became the artistic director of the Actors Studio and Fonda learned her most important acting techniques and lessons with him. Fonda quotes him as saying, “Tension is the occupational disease of the actor.”

Hmm…just the actor? Dare I say that tension is also the occupational disease of the public speaker? As Fonda explains it, relaxation is key for actors, so that “the body’s energetic flow is unimpeded and inspiration can rise and express itself through the actor’s spirit: in eyes, voice and movement…the body as instrument.” She continues, “ You can’t do most things well without being relaxed, not in sports, not in lovemaking, not in acting.”

We know in our heads that we need to embody this same relaxation when we speak in public, so that we make genuine connections and deeply feel that we have done our best.  For the speaker, this state of mind (and body!) is called “relaxed readiness.” Being relaxed and ready means we know where we are going, we’re ready to attend to the ebb and flow of unexpected people, questions, scenarios, and trusting that the ideas, the eyes, the voice and the movement will connect with our audience.  This is an occupational aspiration for public speakers.


Public Speaking Lessons from the Tony Awards

Award shows offer dozens of do’s and don’ts for aspiring public speakers. Sunday night’s Tony Awards telecast was no exception. Here are just a few that I thought were especially instructive:

1. Every so often, change the pace of your presentation. To understand what I mean, you only need to watch this opening number with Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris. The structure is pitch perfect (as were their voices) for a 21st century (tweeting/texting) audience. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, these two gifted performers held your attention better than if they had done one song at the same tempo all the way through.

2. Use the silent pause. I would include a link to John Leguizamo’s performance, but I can’t seem to find one. He was charming, engaging, and hilarious. He puts the pause just where it belongs to get maximum return on investment. Sometimes the pause was to allow for audience laughter (don’t step on your own jokes), and sometimes the pause was meant to let the words sink in and hit their mark. Other than putting his hands in his pockets, he put on a public speaking clinic.

3. Use your whole body to full effect. Granted, when you are on stage in front of a few thousand people, you are more inclined to enhance your gestures, but even if you are in Ballroom B at the Howard Johnson’s Motel at 1:30 in the afternoon, your non-verbal communication can do wonders to keep the attention of your audience. Don’t stand in one spot for more than a few minutes. Use the full height and width of your gesture ‘box’ – that square space from the top of your head to your hips. Keep your hands in view at your beltline when not gesturing and every so often, close the distance between you and your audience.

4. Never admit to your audience that you didn’t prepare. The actress who won for best musical confessed that she thought the idea of winning was so far-fetched that she didn’t prepare any remarks. Bad strategy. If your goal is to appear self-effacing or humble, you can still pull that off by saying “I am so surprised that I am at a loss for words” or something similar. Your audience will get the point. If there is even a slight chance that you will be asked to speak, have something ready to go, just in case. Who knows, it could be your moment to shine and there you are with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

Marcus Buckingham and the Power of Showing Up

I admit that I would watch a 24-hour cable channel devoted to Marcus Buckingham.  He is not only a font of information on career advancement and workplace engagement, but he’s also, shall we say, telegenic.  I had the pleasure of seeing him present again this week on his new research and upcoming book called StandOut – the next iteration of strengths-based research.

This post has to do with his presentation rather than his new content (the book’s not out until September).  The key lesson I took away from his 40-minute presentation was that you have to show up completely to be a successful speaker.  The other presenters I saw at this conference were not nearly as impressive. They were just phoning it in.  You could tell they did not care if they were in Fresno or Fredonia so long as they sold products.

But Marcus was running on all cylinders and the audience ate it up.  It did not hurt that he was preceded by the amazing dance troupe called G Force who pumped up the audience and got the energy flowing.   Imagine if he came out on stage after that dazzling display with his shoulders slouched and mumbling an awkward introduction.  Everyone would have looked down at their I-Pads or smart phones (like they did in other sessions).

The lesson here is to stop strategizing and rehearsing right before you speak. Instead, take a moment to center yourself, enjoy a few, deep cleansing breaths and go.  When you show up fully, the audience responds in kind.

– Barbara

What Should You Do With Your Hands?

Charlotte and I facilitated a Speaker Bootcamp this week for a great company whose employees were ready and willing to learn.  When we reached the section on hand gestures, one participant asked, “Does a speaker have to use hand gestures?”  Our answer:  Only on the days of the week that end in Y.

If you want to connect with and leave a lasting impression on your audience, gestures are one leg of a three-legged stool. Without them, the impact of your words and your voice will be diminished.   Great speakers communicate visually as well as verbally.

When we asked the participant to elaborate on her question, she explained that she always felt awkward using her hands and therefore felt that her gestures detracted from her presentation.  She is not alone.  And for that reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to share the coaching we provided during the workshop:

  1.  Find a comfortable base position for your hands near your belt line.  This is the ideal spot for resting hands because it is neither too close to your chest (which can signal fear) nor too close to your, well, crotch, which can signal defensiveness.
  2. While in the base position, try not to grip your hands too tightly. White knuckles are a dead giveaway for nervousness.
  3. Visualize the gesturing “box” which is just outside and above your shoulders and no lower than your hips.  Keep your gestures in this box when you are standing up to speak.
  4. If you are sitting – for example, as a member of a panel presentation – don’t rest your elbows on the table while you gesture.  Sit tall in your chair with your forearms off the table when you are speaking.  When you are waiting your turn to speak, it is fine to rest your arms, but be mindful of your posture so you don’t slouch.
  5. Don’t bounce your hands when gesturing.  Your goal is to enhance your words, not detract from them.  Bouncing hands only worked for Mussolini.

Finally, keep one important thing in mind:  your energy has to go somewhere.  Whether it’s nervous energy or positive energy, using your hands effectively will channel that energy to the right place. Otherwise, it’s going to ooze out in your stance and you will rock and roll in your feet, hips and knees.  Your audience will wonder if you need to use the restroom.

So, yes, Virginia, always use your hands when you speak.

– Barbara