Politician Beto O’Rourke’s gestures went viral when he announced his run for president. His speech was laced with lots of frenetic gestures that quickly became the talk of social media, comedy shows and news reports. Gestures are an important part of communication and public speaking, so what can you learn from O’Rourke and others about gestures? What gestures work and which ones end up hurting you and your message? The most successful TED Talk presenters use lots of hand gestures. They know how to make even boring data come alive because they have mastered the art of nonverbal engagement! Unfortunately, many people are unaware of how much gestures impact their credibility and engagement levels. The good news is that anyone can become a more engaging speaker by focusing on the best use of gestures and a few TED Talk secrets.
One of the funniest movie scenes about hand gestures is in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Lead character Ricky Bobby (Will Farrell) conducts his first news media interview and suddenly becomes aware of his hands. As he talks to the news reporter he is confounded by with what to do with his two appendages! He keeps looking at them. He raises them up and then wonders aloud on camera what he should do with his hands! It is a great movie scene that focuses on a dilemma that real people face every day – how to effectively use gestures to be a powerful presenter, speaker or media spokesperson.
Our storytelling and media experts help Fortune 500 speakers and spokespersons transform their talents. So, if you aspire to gain presenting skills that are TED Talk worthy, here are three secrets about gestures you should take to heart!
TED Talk Secret # 1: Use Purposeful Gestures
You have a mere seven seconds to make an audience want to stay with you when you speak! This is true for formal presentations and when you are in meetings, too. In seven seconds, people decide if you are worthy of their time. If the answer is no, then they turn to their cell phone. Gestures greatly influence if people find you both credible and likable; it is the magical combination for presentation success. Studies show that the most popular TED Talk presenters use more gestures. To be exact, they use on average 465 gestures in just 18 minutes! Lower rated TED Talk presenters average just 272 gestures in the same amount of time. One of my all-time favorite TED presenters is Brain Scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. She shares her personal story of how she gained additional insight into how the brain functions when she experienced a stroke. Taylor is proof that you don’t have to be overly charismatic to be an engaging and popular presenter! As you watch her TED presentation, you sense that Taylor is being herself. It is her passion for the topic and effective use of gestures that keeps you glued to her story!
It is important to understand that hand gestures are not simply add-ons to your speech or presentation. They are a foundational part of your words and thoughts! Powerful speakers and media spokespersons know the real purpose of gestures is to support or enhance key ideas and words. If a gesture does not enhance one of your key points, then don’t use it. For example, you wouldn’t say, “I want to share a big idea with you,” and then use a gesture that demonstrates something small. When we coach people to become more powerful and engaging presenters, we videotape them, so they get a glimpse of how they look to their audience. We often turn down the volume during playback and ask them to judge the impact of their gestures and nonverbal cues. There is something magical about removing all audio during playback, because it becomes very clear that nonverbal cues play a huge role in your ability to be an engaging speaker.
TED Talk Secret # 2: Avoid Distracting Gestures
When you watch the best TED Talk speakers, it is obvious that all gestures are not created equal! Their gestures look natural, yet they are also very polished. Many corporate presenters haphazardly use hand gestures. They flail when they present. We call it “flailing about with no purpose!” They move their hands and arms here, there and everywhere. They look a bit like fish flopping about on the ground. Their gestures become distractions; they take away from the ideas and words that are spoken. “Flailers” also tend to pace without purpose, which makes for an even more dizzying audience experience. Before you know it, you find yourself focusing more on their distracting gestures than on what they are saying! It can become trance-like, and their words fade into the background as all of your attention goes to their meaningless gestures. Going forward, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke will most likely be told to reign in his wild gestures. Otherwise, they could draw more attention than his message.
It is ironic that former US President Bill Clinton is considered to be a successful speaker, yet he is known for the so-called “Clinton thumb,” a gesture with no real purpose to support his words! The “Clinton thumb” has served as fodder for SNL and other comedy shows over the years. Entire comedy skits have been built around Clinton cupping his fist with his thumb slightly protruding. This strange looking gesture came into existence when Clinton’s political advisors were told to make him stop pointing with his index finger. He came across as too aggressive, so the “Clinton thumb” was invented to change his habit. Despite people poking fun at the “Clinton thumb,” this weird gesture is still mimicked and used today by other politicians!
TED Talk Secret # 3: Use a Daily Dose of Gestures!
Gestures are not just for formal presentations. If you aspire to rise to the caliber of the best TED Talk presenters, then practice your gestures daily! You are always presenting, even when you are sitting at the table during staff or board meetings. During sit-down meetings people typically make two mistakes that limit the effectiveness of their gestures. First, some people place their hands in their lap during meetings. This move completely eliminates your use of gestures and often makes you look dissociated and powerless. Second, you also see people clasping their hands together on the table during meetings. This popular move also causes you to gesture less and can lower your perceived engagement level at the table.
So, whether you are standing during presentations and media interviews – or attending a meeting, be sure to use gestures that complement your words and main points. Nonverbal cues play a major role in how others perceive you. The right gestures will increase your credibility and likability, and both qualities are key to your overall success.
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Gail lives on a Texas ranch with her family, five amazing horses, one very cute donkey and an entertaining bunch of dogs, cats and chickens! We support a horse therapy program for people with disabilities, as well as local animal shelters that rescue abandoned dogs and cats.
Benchmark has consulted with and trained leaders and associates from all 50 USA states and more than 25 countries. The Benchmark team provides award-winning leadership and communication strategies to Fortune 500 groups so they can achieve their business goals. We provide consulting and coaching services in: leadership development, storytelling / presentations, reputation management, crisis response, media skills, stakeholder engagement, effective communications and soft skills training.