Fact & fiction about body language 3: Do movement & gestures distract?

Thanks - and an apology to the BBC!
An hour or two ago, I was one of those interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language - which can now be heard (for the next 7 days) HERE.

As the interview I did with Chris Ledgard lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it was obvious that whatever I said would be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, made me start worrying that my position on the subject wouldn't get get as full a hearing as I'd like. So, to put the record straight, I decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

However, I needn't have bothered, because within the constraints of a half-hour radio show, I thought that Chris Ledgard and his producer, Beatrice Fenton, gave me as full and fair a hearing as I could have hoped for. I would therefore like to thank them for doing such a good job and to apologise for suggesting that I might need to set the record straight.

However, having started the series, I might as well complete it - especially as the programme may have brought some new visitors to the blog (to whom welcome) who might be curious to know more...

1. Does movement distract?
I once worked with a presentation skills trainer who taught that speakers should not only stand still, but that there was a correct stance for presentation that involved placing one foot slightly in front of the other. After the lecture that included this advice, delegates regularly came to me pointing out a glaring inconsistency between what they had just heard and what they had just seen. While recommending them not to move about when they were speaking, he had spent most of the lecture wandering about the conference room.

When asked if this worried or distracted them, delegates invariably said “no”. Most went further, adding that it helped to hold their interest and came across as lively and enthusiastic. This positive reaction to movement is in fact typical of how members of audiences tend to react when commenting on each other’s presentations. Movement features in their plus columns much more frequently than in their minus columns, which suggests that the best advice for the vast majority of people is that, if they feel like moving about, they should do so.

There is, however, a small minority of cases where speakers’ movements do get a negative rating from audience members, such as when someone continually sways from side to side, or takes a few steps forwards and a few steps back, over and over again. What these negatively rated movements have in common is a relentless repetitiveness that is at best a distraction, and at worst a source of irritation to audiences.

It may well be an awareness of this that leads some trainers to recommend that no one should ever move around at all while speaking. But the trouble with adopting such a blanket solution to solve what is a relatively rare problem is that it is likely to deter the vast majority of people from doing something that will have a positive impact on their audiences. Movement also has positive benefits for speakers themselves, as it helps to disperse adrenalin and reduce tension.

As for how to find out if you are one of the minority whose movements are likely to distract, the best way is through a simple practical experiment. The next time you make a speech or presentation, forget about standing still and move around in any way that comes naturally to you: then check on people’s reactions afterwards. This is much more reliable than watching yourself on video, as we tend to be far too critical of our own individual performances. Many are the times that I have heard people denounce the way they move when they see themselves on tape, only to be contradicted by those who had been in the audience at the time. If one accepts that the audience is always right, the safest bet is to listen to what they have to say.

2. Do gestures distract?
The news from audiences about gestures is very similar to that on movement more generally. On almost every presentation skills course I have ever run, someone will say that they have been on another one where the trainer told them that gestures are distracting, and that speakers should keep their hands motionless during presentations. Meanwhile, it is just as rare for audiences to give negative ratings when they see speakers gesticulating as when they see them moving about. In fact they are much more likely to rate the use of gestures as a definite plus, often referring to it as evidence of expressiveness, individuality and liveliness.

As with the blanket prohibition on moving about while speaking, it may be that some trainers recommend the total suppression of gestures as an insurance policy against the risk that we might belong to the small minority whose hand movements are a source of distraction or irritation to audiences. These tend to be the ones that bear no discernable connection to what the speaker is saying.

For example, a video- tape that I often use in training programmes shows a speaker continuously flapping his hand up and down. Everyone who has seen the tape not only notices it, but is also highly critical of it. Other uses of the hands that attract negative ratings include continuous hair tugging, hand wringing, or fidgeting with some other object (most usually the cap of a felt-tipped pen) or part of the anatomy. Like the randomly flapping hand, what makes these distracting and irritating to audiences is that they do not relate in any obvious way to what the speaker is saying.

The opponents of gestural freedom seem to have missed a number of key points about the use of gestures. One is that, as already mentioned, only a small minority of people, perhaps as few as ten per cent, exhibit any such problems at all. Another is that as skilled an orator as Hitler would hardly have practised his gestures in front of a mirror if they were such a waste of time.

And if it really is a distraction to use gestures, there must be tens of millions of people distracting each other every second of every day. This is for the very obvious reason that gesticulating while speaking is a thoroughly natural and normal part of the way humans communicate with each other. As such, any deliberate or conscious effort to suppress gestures may well impede a speaker’s fluency, and restrict their ability to express themselves. At the same time completely motionless hands look distinctly odd to those who are listening, whether they are in conversation or sitting in an audience.

One of the uses of gestures is as visual aids to illustrate or emphasise what we are talking about. For example, when Winston Churchill spoke of an ‘iron curtain’ descending across Europe, he moved his left hand downwards at the same time. When Bill Clinton said that there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be solved by what is right with America, he stabbed the air just before the words ‘wrong’ and ‘right’.

Sometimes speakers move their left hand during one part of a contrast, following it with a similar movement of the right hand during the second part. When listing three items, it’s quite normal for people to count them out on their fingers, or to make three hand movements at the same time. Even very young children have no problem in pointing at the thing they are asking for, or in holding their hands a certain distance apart to show how big something is.

We don’t have to be explicitly taught to do any of these things, and are more or less completely unaware that we are doing them. Nor do we give much thought to the fine degree of precision timing that it takes to get it right, even though words and gestures have to be closely coordinated if they are to come across as natural rather than clumsy or awkward. So the advice on gestures is to do whatever comes naturally, because the chances are that it will make a presentation more expressive and animated than would otherwise be the case.

In fact, different people gesticulate in slightly different ways, which makes it one of those behavioural details that plays a part in conveying a person’s individuality. As such, using gestures is much more likely to help you to get your own personality across to an audience, than adopting a stance that makes you look like a stuffed dummy whose hands have been firmly glued to its sides or behind its back.

Finally, there is a close parallel between the use of gesture and one of the points made about intonation in Chapter 2. This was the observation that the bigger the distance between speaker and audience, the more will changes in tone and emphasis tend to flatten out. In the same way, slight gestures that are perfectly visible at close quarters in a conversation become progressively more difficult for the audience to see as their distance from the speaker increases.

If, as was suggested earlier, you can avoid the problem of monotone by exaggerating your normal conversational patterns of intonation, so too can you make your gestures more visible by exaggerating your normal conversational hand movements. And the bigger the audience, the more expansive and flamboyant you can afford to be.

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:


  1. I've just ordered two of your books from Amazon after listening to the Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme this afternoon during my drive home from work. The show had a balanced coverage, and I thought that the points you raised in your interview were interesting, pragmatic and - for me - more relevant for my own day-to-day discussions. I will be presenting at a large customer event in October this year, and I look forward to reading the books and learning more about your research, observations and recommendations with the hope that I can glean some tidbits that will help me improve my presentation skills.

    Some comments:
    > I work in the UK for a large multinational three-letter organisation in the IT sector, and I've attended US-based sales training where it seemed like the objective was to come across sounding like a combination of (a) Sesame Street's hyper-gesticulating 'Guy Smiley' and (b) a bloke selling food storage containers on the QVC shopping channel. It's over-simplifying things to think that what works in the US will work in the UK.
    > You raised a point in your interview about the '93% of communication is non-verbal' mis-quote. I thought your observations were astute, and - due to the fact that I'm now finding audio podcasting to be far more attractive than terrestrial TV - it really underlined how this audio medium can remain personal and relevant.
    > On a lighter note, a recommendation for you, Max. As a communications researcher/consultant, why not consider tweaking the Palace of Westminster image on the home page of your blog to use an alternative to the Comic Sans font? It's a ghastly typeface, as others would testify: http://bancomicsans.com/main/

  2. People do indeed have an awkward relationship with speaker movements. They think they are bad in the abstract, yet they like them in the particulars when the see a speaker moving in front of them

  3. Delighted to hear that Anon has ordered some books from Amazon - and found your comments interesting and helpful. It was news to me that Comic Sans is such a detested font. But it's not worth going to all the trouble of changing it at this stage, as I'm hoping to migrate the blog to WordPress in the near future!


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