The 9 Pillars of Gesture for Public Speaking

Gesture, embracing movements of the head, body, arms, hands, legs and feet, is a natural and necessary part of public speaking. Mastering this art and making it appear natural take much practice, but can not be mastered any other way. So here are the top tips to help speed you along your way.

1. The head should be well-poised and not held on one side as if scrutinizing an audience. When held erect it denotes a normal attitude, courage, joy, pride, or authority; when upward it indicates hope or prayer; when downward, shame, modesty, or reflection; when forward, appeal, listening, sympathy or anticipation; when backward, surprise, terror or independence; when shaking, denial, discontent, or emphasis.

Frequent and meaningless movements should be studiously avoided. In bowing, incline the head and upper body together, so as to bring the bend from the waist. It should be done slowly and pleasantly, with the eyes looking down.

2. The face should be trained to promptly and truthfully reflect the emotions of the speaker. Quintilian says: “The face is the dominant power of expression. With this we supplicate; with this we threaten; with this we soothe; with this we mourn; with this we rejoice; with this we triumph; with this we make our submissions; upon this the audience hang; upon this they keep their eyes fixed; this they examine and study even before a word is spoken.”

3. The eyes are wide open in joy, fear and surprise; closed in faintness, half-closed in hate and scrutiny; raised in prayer and supplication; drooped in modesty and veneration; look askance in envy, jealousy, and appreciation.

4. The nostrils are extended in fear and indignation, and elevated in scorn.

5. The lips are closed in repose; partly open in surprise and wonder; wide open in terror; turn upward in pleasure, courtesy and good humor; turn downward in grief and sorrow; pout in discontent; and compress in anger, defiance and determination.

6. The body should move in harmony with the other members as required by the thought. In turning from side to side the movement should be from the waist and not from the neck.

7. The arms move from the shoulder, excepting in conversational gesture. They should rest at the sides without crooking the elbows. Movements may be slow and gentle, slow and intense, swift and light, or swift and strong. The size, length, and velocity of a gesture depend upon the thought. The lines are usually in curves, expressing grace, while straight lines are used when special emphasis is required. The general purpose of gesture is to locate, illustrate, generalize or emphasize.

8. The hands should be carefully trained for flexibility and expressiveness. The fingers should be slightly apart and curved. A gesture has three divisions:

– The preparation, made in an opposite direction from that which the gesture is to take.

– The gesture proper, which must be precisely upon the word intended.

– The return, in which the hand should be dropped gently and slowly without slapping the sides of the body.

And here are the most common hand gestures:

– The supine hand, palm upward, is used to express good-humor, frankness and generalization.

– The prone hand, palm downward, shows superposition, or the resting of one thing upon another.

– The vertical hand, palm outward, is used in warding off, putting from, and in repugnant and disagreeable thought.

– The clenched hand is used in anger, defiance and great emphasis.

– The index finger is used to specialize and indicate.

– Both hands are used in appeal and to express intensity, expansiveness and greatness. Usually one hand should slightly lead the other. The hands are clasped in prayer and wrung in grief.

9. The feet. The standing position should be easy, the feet at an angle of forty-five degrees, one foot in advance of the other, the width of the base depending upon the height of the speaker. The knees should be straight, shoulders even and chin level. Avoid rising on the toes and too frequent change of foot position. The most graceful effect is secured when the left foot is forward and the gesture made with the right hand, or vice versa. This combination gives balance, though it is not always possible to use it. The change of foot position will not be so noticeable if done in the act of making a gesture.

If you practice these gestures with each speech, working them in naturally. In due time, this skill will become second nature, and your overall ability and presence as a speaker will improve drastically.