Body Language 70 Talking With Your Hands

March 5, 2020

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.”

Leadership Barometer 17 Optimize Communication

September 23, 2019

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Optimize communication

All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day. So why does communication always surface in the top 2 of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization?

The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let’s first look at the symptom from two vantage points.

The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day.

All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. So it is a frustration when people feedback that there is “never any communication” going on. Wow, what a slap in the face.

From the worker’s perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them.

The messages heard are not consistent with the messages sent by the leader. There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a “gotcha” announcement.

The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let’s take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.

1. Frequency – the span between communication on key issues is more tricky than meets the eye. The old rule of “the more the merrier” is really not the best policy.

When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out, and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore. Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand.

So what is the antidote? How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the volume control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language – often in group settings.

2. Boring Message – I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. So, all the information is given, but everyone is zzzzd out, and there is poor communication.

The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you.

Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning.

I know the CEO of an organization that communicates with a deck of 50-100 PowerPoint slides. After the third slide, everybody in the audience is politely staring at the screen with the facial appearance of listening when in reality they are absorbing none of the information.

The antidote here is to get the CEO some basic training on PowerPoint no-no’s and make sure he doesn’t sleep through the class.

3. Not what I said – Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning.

It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, “The reason you don’t understand me, is because I’m talking in English and you’re listening in Dingbat!” During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog. You may need to learn to speak in “dingbat.”

4. Too complex – In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time.

Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time. Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation.

Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible, and consider the different learning styles of your audience.

5. Management Speak – Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call “management speak.” They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow. Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message.

However, be very careful to not “talk down” to people on the shop floor. They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them.

Resist the temptation to “dumb down the message” so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language. Just because they do not know Latin is no reason to treat them as ignorant.

6. Shifting messages – It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different.

Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent. Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect.

The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.

7. Electronic Communication – Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication virtually. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication. It took me 300 pages in a book to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication.

Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book).

An example may help here. Most people view an e-mail like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong! When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting.

Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous.

8. Communicating at the head level – Good communication does not occur at the “head” level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc. Real communication is deep in the gut.

When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.

Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at or 585-392-7763.