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Date: June 12, 2019

Communication Leadership Executive Communications Coaching

The 2020 Presidential Campaign is reaching a fevered pitch with 20+ Democrat candidates vying for our attention. Standing out from the crowd is a major strategy whether that is taking an emphatic stand on a controversial issue or, like Beto O’Rourke, using body language to attract attention. But how much is too much?

Entertainment columnist, Vinay Menon of The Toronto Star says O’Rourke’s excessive gesturing may backfire and if he were to be the Democrat Presidential candidate, it would (literally) hand the election to President Trump. “Beto O’Rourke’s hands are running for President. Between the full body spasms and the shoulder dancing…O’Rourke is more exhausting to watch than a Cirque Du Solei troupe in a war zone.”

Presidential politics aside, we are often asked by clients preparing for presentations, “what do I do with my hands?” and I always ask, “what do you usually do with your hands?” Most of them aren’t sure. I assure them that all of us use our hands to some degree when we speak because gestures are an essential tool in our communication.

“Gesticulation isn’t divorced from speech. It’s completely tied to your speech,” University of Chicago psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, one of the leading researchers in the field, told Science of Us. “It’s part of your cognition. It’s not just mindless hand-waving.” In fact, studies have show even people blind from birth gesture with their hands when speaking suggesting it is not a learned behavior through observing others.

Currently, there is a lot of terrible advice being given to people who genuinely want to project confidence and engage an audience in an authentic way. When a client says they were told NOT to use their hands when they present, whether by their manager or another communications coach, the conscious effort to stop results in equally strange behavior in the opposite way of O’Rourke’s enthusiastic but ultimately suspect excessive gesturing. They clasp their hands behind their back or keep them stiff and rigid by their sides. What is generally an unselfconscious act then becomes a self-conscious act that distracts us from what we are there to communicate.

The most effective speakers are those who know how to find their natural, conversational “zone” in which all of their visual, vocal and verbal YOU Factors are working in unison. Everyone has that zone but knowing how to find it when the nerves are rising and the stakes are high can be a challenge. However, it is the only way to deliver a convincing message that can motivate an audience to action.

To begin to find that zone for yourself, observe what you do when you are trying to make an important point and you are using everything you have to convince someone that your idea or plan is the right one. Your facial expressions, your vocal range and volume, your hand gestures, eye contact and energy should match the passion and conviction you feel. Always remember that your audience will not be more excited or interested in what you are talking about than you are!