When Nixon and Kennedy took part in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the world and the candidates were in for a shock. They learned that their nonverbal behavior, in some ways has a larger impact than their words. The radio audience thought that Nixon fared better because they didn’t see the obvious discomfort in his body language, and his verbal message was strong. On the other hand, the television audience saw Kennedy’s confident and engaged body language and thought that he was the obvious winner.
Even the most brilliantly written speech will fall on deaf ears, if the speaker fails to establish trust and rapport with his audience. Our hands are arguably the best tool for this job.
Start by using gestures that allows your audience to see your open hands, this will help with trust building. Use hand gestures as you speak to engage and establish rapport.
There are two basic types of hand gestures; Emblems and Illustrators.
Emblems are gestures that are recognizable and used in the absence of words. They aren’t necessarily universal, for example the ok sign used in the USA has a very different meaning in Southern Europe where it is reserved for enemies. Display the ok sign after answering a question from your audience, and ask them if they are ok with your answer. This will help to establish a positive rapport.
This emblem is universally understood to mean that you are listening, and when you use this gesture at a noisy event your potential new client will appreciate your willingness to hear them. Listening is key to rapport building.
The thumbs-up is another emblem that is well known, and it is frequently employed by politicians even if it is not always complemented by a suitable smile. You can use the thumbs up to demonstrate your enthusiasm when your audience is coming around to your point of view, but please remember it’s not a real thumbs-up without a smile.
The thumbs-up can even be used to soften an action that otherwise would seem harsh. Pres. Obama incorporates the thumbs-up in a modified finger pointing. It is purposeful and subconsciously communicates optimism even if he is berating somebody.
Despite it being common knowledge that finger pointing is rude, it is still common around the office and even with public speakers. Finger wagging (extend index finger and wag up and down) is the most offensive and should be avoided, period. If you must point, try this: 1. Make an ok sign. 2. Extend your arm forward in the direction of your target.
Illustrators refer to the hand gestures we use as we talk, they help to convey ideas, but their meaning may change when taken out of context. They are prevalent where there is an emotional attachment to what is being said. Illustrator use has been shown to engage an audience very well even in the absence of an emotional attachment.
Illustrators can be purely functional too….
If I need to get my audience to move to one side of a room, which approach will help build the trust and rapport that we are after?
1. I gesture to the side with my hand held at shoulder height, palm down, like a Nazi salute.
2. I gesture to the side of the room with an open and upward-facing-palm, at a level just above the waist.
Illustrators can be used effectively when:
· Demonstrating something large by opening our arms wide. Small – bring them in.
· Demonstrating sincerity with our dominant hand placed briefly on our hearts (you need to actually be sincere).
· Demonstrating growth with a diagonal upward movement of one hand.
· Using a chopping motion to indicate a sudden end.
· Bringing two fists to your chest in a demonstration of strength or passion.
· Gesturing with your right hand and then your left to show contrast – “this or that”.
· The steeple (left) says “what I am about to say is brilliant!”
Negative nonverbal cues
We soothe children by touch – we stroke their arms and shoulders and pat their backs, and we carry that instinct into adulthood. We self-soothe by touching the front of our necks, we touch our face and we stroke our own arms. We deal with tension by squeezing the back of our neck and wringing our hands together. Self-soothing gestures send a loud and clear message that we are uncomfortable, and when we are uncomfortable our audience becomes uncomfortable.
Where are you on the spectrum of using hand gestures?
If you are that guy who would become mute if your hands were tied behind your back, then you’re at the highest end. Since this can be distracting and make you look erratic you may want to bring it down a notch.
If you never use your hands when you talk you are at the lowest end of the spectrum and you may want to try to notch it up a bit. A tip that some people find useful, is to keep your hands slightly below your chest and pretend you are holding a basketball. This will position you to use your hands freely and it helps to prevent self-soothing.
Anthony Awerbuch is a certified body-language trainer and can be reached at Anthony@bodylanguageonpurpose.com / 201-618-5170 for corporate training workshops, coaching and much more.