Most of us make hand gestures while we are talking. The vast majority of the time when we talk using our hands for emphasis, we are unaware we are even doing it. The hand movements are just a natural way to assist us in communicating meaning.
This brief article examines the phenomenon of hand gestures while talking and suggests some guidelines that may be helpful for your professional and personal life.
The major variable in hand gestures to emphasize verbal communication is the amount that is done. Some people have almost no hand animation, regardless of the topic, and other people gesture practically for every syllable of every word. That frequency can get tedious for the listener very quickly.
An extensive study was reported in HuffPost where people studied thousands of Ted Talks and counted the number of hand gestures in the standard 18 minute length. They found that the most popular speakers made an average of 465 gestures in their talks while the least popular speakers averaged less than half that number.
This research indicates that giving 2-3 hand gestures for the average sentence helps listeners stay interested in the subject. But if we have 10-15 gestures in an average sentence, that constitutes an overload situation. People will eventually tend to tune out.
If you want to view the frequency of hand gestures and count for yourself, just listen to a political debate. Since the stakes are high and the participants are vying for the most attention, the gestures are usually more frequent. The gestures get more frequent as the level of tension increases. Also, since debates are usually done before a large audience, that also encourages large hand gestures to animate the points being made.
Hand gestures enhance story-telling, because they make the subject come alive more than just the plain words would do. Suppose you are describing the difference between a huge military vessel and a tiny fishing boat. If you hold your hands out wide apart for the former and just use your thumb and first finger to illustrate the smaller boat, people will grasp the meaning easier. Experienced and professional story tellers use their entire body to emphasize their points rather than just their hands.
Some people are clumsy with hand gestures and do not have a congruent presentation. Suppose you were using words that describe a swan floating gracefully in the water, but your hand gesture was of a chopping motion with a vertical hand. The meaning would be difficult to interpret. Some people are frequently not congruent with words and gestures, and it ultimately leads to a lowering of trust just the same as if the facial expressions are not consistent with the words.
Gestures originate in the Broca’s area of the brain located on the left side of the brain and part of the frontal lobe. We also use this area of the brain to decode the gestures of others. If a person has suffered a brain injury, it may be more difficult to give consistent signals or to understand the signals of others. If you see someone who frequently misuses gestures or often takes things the wrong way, that person may have suffered a brain injury from a fall or a crushing hit in football.
Another aspect of gesturing while talking is to be alert for the imaginary box that is bounded on the sides by your shoulders, on top by your chin, and on the bottom by your belt line. If the majority of your gestures are inside the box, then they will not be viewed as “over the top,” On the other hand, if you are prone to fling your arms out to the maximum length as you communicate, people will think you are an “out there” kind of personality.
One person who has a habit of flinging her arms to the maximum extent is Elizabeth Warren. If you view her in a debate situation, you will see a good example of extreme gesturing. That habit is neither good nor bad; it is just her way of communicating. If most people used that much emphasis for key points, it would become a much more animated world.
You also need to take into consideration the relative size of the other person when you talk using gestures. If a large imposing person uses wide gestures when addressing a much shorter person or a child, the result can be highly intimidating for the shorter person, and it may result in a lowering of trust.
Since most of the time you are not consciously aware of your gestures, it would be a good idea to pay attention to your pattern in different circumstances. How many gestures do you use when you have an argument with your kids? How many do you use when you are describing a particularly bad storm? How many do you use when trying to communicate information with people at work?
In this regard, professional speakers have an advantage. They frequently have recordings of their talks, so they can gauge the level of gesturing they use and moderate it as appropriate to become more polished.
You can benefit just by paying attention to your hands as you monitor your communication effectiveness more consciously. It will allow you to improve your connectivity with people and raise the level of trust you are able to achieve with them.
This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”
What is the biggest waste of time at your place of work? For most professional employees, the answer is, “meetings.”
Each of us has experienced frustration with ineffective meetings. Most of these are face-to-face situations where a bunch of people gather around a conference table with an objective to accomplish something.
Meetings also happen on the phone and online; the venue does not matter. It feels like the “process” is painfully slow, and the progress is difficult to appreciate.
If you have not experienced this, check your pulse; you may be dead.
More productive Meetings
Let me start with a question. What is the most precious commodity in the world? Stop reading and think about this question. I really want you to ponder what is precious. Is it “love,” “money,” faith,” “family,” “freedom,” “health”? Give it some real thought before you read on.
To answer the question, how would you define “precious?” You might equate it with value in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic reward. You might view it in a social or family context.
I believe there are two factors that make something precious: how difficult it is to obtain, and how important it is. It is the old “supply and demand” analysis. If something is in great demand, but is extremely scarce, it will be incredibly precious.
Take diamonds, for example. They are highly prized by human beings (not sure why) and they are extremely difficult to find (because they look like regular rocks in their natural state and there are so few of them.)
For example, there is a story told by Earl Nightingale about a poor farmer in Africa. He was unable to sustain his family because the soil on his farm was too arid. He tried to grow crops for years and tried to irrigate the land, but the soil was too weak.
Finally, he heard of the discovery of diamonds in a mountain region in another area. He sold his farm and moved to the mountains to prospect for diamonds. He never found any and his family perished.
Meanwhile, the person who bought his land for a pittance found an interesting rock that he took home and placed on his mantle. A couple years later, a visiting geologist recognized the kind of rock and asked the farmer if he knew what it was.
To his amazement, it turned out to be the largest diamond ever found in Africa. Further, the property was replete with similar rocks. It turned out to be the richest area for diamonds in the country.
So, the original farmer was literally surrounded by “acres of diamonds,” but did not realize it. He went to seek his fortune elsewhere and perished with his family due to starvation.
Leaders in the workplace are also surrounded by acres of “diamonds,” but we may not realize it. The diamonds are the people in the organization.
If treated right and exposed to the right environment (like polishing) nearly every person will turn into a valuable gem for the organization. The trouble is, most leaders, just like the original farmer, fail to realize the incredible value that surrounds them every day. What a crime.
If you will accept the “supply and demand” argument for what makes things precious, let’s explore what is the one thing in this world that is truly scarce. What is it that we cannot get more of no matter how we try.
Is it love? No, we can get more of that. Is it money? Certainly not. Is it any kind of metal or mineral? No. Is it faith? No, we can increase that by changing our viewpoint. I submit it is time.
Oh sure, we can increase our total time on earth by improving our health risk factors, but I am talking about the time we each have every day. We each get exactly 24 hours every day. Nothing we can do will increase that. No one gets less, and no one gets more.
We all want more time desperately, but none of us can get more of it on a daily basis it. It is fixed. Therefore, by the law of supply and demand, time is the most precious commodity.
What does this have to do with meetings? Well, if you are like most people, one of your top time wasters is meetings. We need to make them more efficient and productive.
If we do this well, we have more time for the other important things in life. In fact, by increasing our effectiveness at meetings, we can actually “manufacture” time for later use. We can “Save time in a bottle,” as Jim Croce put it.
Would that be worth it? Well, that is probably the easiest way to get some more of the most precious commodity for yourself and your team. Let’s examine some of the typical time wasters in meetings and suggest some antidotes. We’ll start with the granddaddy of them all.
Griping is the most significant time waster in meetings. Think about it. You know the routine. Everyone arrives at the meeting with their head full of issues and problems they are dealing with in their working world.
As the “early birds” are patiently waiting (by the way, having people arrive late is another huge time waster) for the late members, someone says something like, “Can you believe they are increasing our medical deductions again?”
That gets someone else to chime in on how unfair it is, and pretty soon the floodgates are open. Out pours fresh steaming venom onto the table.
When everyone has finally arrived and the group is immersed in self-pity and derogatory remarks about the cost of medical insurance. If gone unchecked, this can go on for most of the meeting, completely usurping the original agenda.
The antidote to this waste of time rests with the leader. He/she is responsible for keeping the agenda and not letting the meeting lapse into a gripe session. An easy technique is to acknowledge a need for the group to do some venting, but put a “stop loss” on it.
The leader might say, “It looks like there is a lot of energy around the medical deductions. How much time do we want to spend on this subject before we launch into the positive things that must be accomplished in this meeting?”
The group might agree to spend 5 more minutes venting. It is now up to the leader to stop the discussion after the 5 minutes and say, “OK, we all agreed to move on after 5 minutes. Any more gripes about the benefits will be done outside this meeting. Let’s move on to the agenda and make some positive steps toward our vision.”
If people persist in venting, it is up to the leader to shut this down.
Have an agenda
An agenda is very important for any meeting. If it is worth getting everyone together, it is worth a few minutes to set the topics and objectives for the meeting. This can prevent wasting time when the team wants to wander off topic. Again, it is up to the leader to keep the group on task.
An often-ignored technique in meetings is the periodic summary of decisions. This can be a real time-saver. After 10 minutes of discussion on the new safety policy, the leader might say, “Let me summarize this discussion. We seem to be agreeing that we will set a new goal of zero lost time accidents for the next quarter. Is everyone on board with this decision?”
If the entire group agrees, then move on to the next topic. Have the notes indicate a decision was made by the group. If this step is omitted, there is no firm commitment to the decision.
People will talk around and about a topic and everyone will have their own opinion of the outcome. You can leave a meeting with wide variations in people’s minds about what actually happened. Summarizing each point as it is made, prevents this problem.
Summarizing also puts a cap on each topic, so the group moves through the agenda efficiently. The role of the leader is to facilitate the process. Done well, this will maximize the benefit of the time spent together.
Handling opposing views
Disagreements can create an incredible waste of time. A point is made, then someone offers a counterpoint. This lapses into a discussion back and forth about the issue. It can, and often does, become acrimonious.
As people “dig in their heels” to defend their position, the argument becomes more intense. Often it gets personal with statements like, “you are always trying to harpoon everything we are trying to do in this team.”
The crime is that, many times the individuals are not that far apart. They are just not listening to each other. I have been in meetings where two individuals spend a lot of time in “violent agreement” with each other, but neither of them realizes it.
There are two antidotes for this problem. First, get the opposing parties to express the position of the other person in their own words. That will uncover if the argument is a “tempest in a teapot.” It also ensures that each party really understands the opposing viewpoint.
Agree to Disagree
The other technique is the “Rule of Three.” If the point- counterpoint goes on for three iterations, it is unlikely either party is going to “win” the argument. This is the time for the leader to say, “I think you two should agree to disagree on this point. It is evident that neither of you are going to sway the other, so let’s table this discussion or take it outside so we can get back to the agenda.”
Using the Rule of Three can save huge amounts of time in meetings.
The leader is responsible for starting and ending each meeting on schedule. It is impolite to arrive late for meetings. As a leader, you can stop this behavior simply by not waiting for the lagers.
Make sure there are some important decisions at the start of the meeting. If someone comes in late, do not go back and review what was already done; let the inconsiderate person catch up after the meeting.
I use a technique in my on-ground classes where I go over the hints for the next week’s assignments at the start of the class. Once I had a tardy student turn in the wrong assignment. She came to me and complained that I did not explain the rules well. I told her that the rules were explained at the start of the previous class, but she was not in attendance at that time. She quickly got the message.
The same rules apply in the online environment. If you make a commitment for the start of a meeting at 8 pm, be there at 8 pm. Recognize that there are family or personal emergencies that can make that impossible in rare instances.
The problem is that some people have a tendency to excuse themselves from their obligations on a regular basis. This behavior needs to be extinguished by the team. We need to be sensitive to real emergencies, but intolerant of those who habitually make excuses for holding up others.
These are only a few of the rules to make better use of time in meetings. Most of these are common sense ideas, but they are often forgotten in the normal work environment. The best way to make sure you are not wasting time is to remember how incredibly valuable it is, and act that way.
The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Robert Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.
Imagine that you had a way to tell the leader of a meeting that you were bored with the current discussion and wished the conversation could move on to a more helpful topic. Now imagine you could share your thought with others to test if they agreed without getting them or the leader upset with you. If that seems like a utopia, just read on; this article has the solution to many hours of wasted time spent in meetings.
I advocate that each team should have some kind of Charter that allows the participants of team meetings to establish a set of ground rules to be as efficient as possible. At any time in its existence, a team can establish a few rules that will save everyone an amazing amount of frustration.
What is required is that the team be a group of mature individuals who all have their mutual best interest at heart. It helps a lot of there is real trust within the team. Then just a quick brainstorm can generate a few basic rules. For example, here are three rules that can lead to a more effective group process:
We will start and end our meetings on time.
We will listen to each other’s input and not grandstand.
We will not make jokes at the expense of any team member.
One incredibly powerful team rule is the use of the “Time Out” signal. The hand signal is the familiar one from football, where the referee puts the tips of the fingers of one hand to the palm of the other hand to form the letter “T.” Once a group has established that it is safe to do this, something magic happens.
Each member of the team is now empowered to let his or her thoughts be known when the group appears to be spinning wheels. The time out sign is merely calling the question by letting the leader know that at least one individual thinks the team would be better off moving to a different topic. Because of the agreement that the individual will not be punished for making the gesture, team members are free to use it when the situation arises.
The team leader should now say something like this, “I see Jake is signaling that he wants to move on, are the rest of you in agreement?” If most of the team members show affirmative body language or verbal response, then the subject can immediately be changed to something more valuable. Imagine how refreshing this method would be in those all-day meetings that seem to drag on forever.
Just this one hand signal can save a team hours of tedious repetition or arguments, once a team agrees to use it. I advocate that you encourage your team at work to discuss and approve the use of the “time out” gesture and other basic rules. These rules can significantly improve the productivity and empowerment of any team.