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How to talk with your hands

French Bartender Using Gestures and Expressions While Talking Behind the Bar

It was a July day in 1975, and Judge Rudolph T. Randa’s municipal courtroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was packed. As the defendant stood before sentencing, the judge asked if he had anything he wanted to say on his own behalf.

Needing to use his hands to speak his piece, the defendant automatically pulled them from his pockets … where he’d been holding up pants that were four sizes too big. His trousers fell to the floor. No underwear. Thus the defendant’s unplanned statement was to moon the crowded courtroom.

The poor man quickly pulled up his pants as the spectators tried to smother their snickers. But with the guard’s admonishment to “keep your hands in your pockets,” he probably found it even more difficult to come up with appropriate words for his circumstances.

A recent study conducted at the University of Birmingham in England found that talking with your hands triggers mental images that helps people solve complex problems involving spatial visualization. In other words, people who use their hands when talking find it easier to put things in mental order. Other studies have found that people tend to view those who talk with their hands as more warm, agreeable, and energetic … and those who don’t as more cold and calculating.

Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work says these hand gestures help send positive signals to your audience:

• Steepling. Palms apart, fingers spread and touching lightly tells the audience you’re comfortable, confident, and know your subject well. Goman says steepling is a favorite gesture of CEOs, professors, lawyers, and politicians.

• Clenching. Yes, a clenched fist can indicate anger or intransigence. But it also confirms resoluteness and a firm commitment to the objective. So in the right circumstances, it is a positive gesture.

• Quickening. Sweeping arm movements and quick hand gestures suggest energy and enthusiasm. Just don’t get overly enthusiastic. If you start waving your arms above your shoulders or making excessive, herky-jerky body movements, you run the risk of appearing erratic, unstable, and less credible.

• Calming. If you want to appear composed, and help your audience feel calm and centered, try keeping your arms bent to a 45-degree angle at your waist and maintaining your hand gestures within that horizontal plane. Goman also suggests speakers assume that position between gestures to help keep themselves grounded.


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