Gestures can help you when you’re speaking, or undermine you and your message.
I’ve seen lots of sales pitches and business speakers, and I’ve kept a log of the worst offenders. On a scale of one to 10, these small actions range from being distracting to potentially damaging a person’s image in the minds of the audience:
1. Don’t Point to a Slide or Screen With Your Middle Finger
Damage Fact: People May Take Offense, Even if You Did it by Mistake
I once had a client, a Texan, who did this, and when I showed him the video, he said, “Oh my God! I’m flippin’ the Chairman the bird.” Use your whole hand when pointing, not a single finger. The first finger alone is accusative, the pinky is prissy, and the middle finger is downright hostile.
Damage Factor: 9
2. Don’t Clasp Your Hands Behind Your Back
Damage Fact: It May Make You Stumble Over Your Words, Making You Seem Unprepared
We’re Americans—we gesture when we speak. It helps us find the right words. When Professor William McNeil tied speakers’ hands behind their backs, they took longer than usual to find the right words. In other experiments, he found that listeners didn’t understand a speaker as well when the speaker didn’t use his or her hands.
Damage Factor: 4
3. Don’t Hold Your Hands Together in Front of You
Damage Fact: People May Get the Feeling That They Don’t Trust You
If you do it all the time you look like you’re protecting yourself, or being a goodie-goodie. It ties up your energy and expressiveness. Dr. David DeSteno has demonstrated that holding your hands together you look less trustworthy, and, even more shocking, causes you to behave in a less trustworthy manner.
Damage Factor: 7
4. Don’t Touch Your Face, Hair, or Nose
Damage Fact: At the Least, It’s Distracting, At the Worst, It’s Uncouth
You rarely see high-level politicians or leaders touch these three danger zones in front of an audience. Since capturing and holding attention is such a challenge, every word and gesture must align with your message. Scratching an itch, fussing with your hair, or rubbing your nose should wait until you are off the stage.
Damage Factor: 3
5. Don’t Make Squirrel Paws
Damage Fact: People May Think You Lack Energy and Won’t Get the Job Done
When I was a very young child, my uncle took me to the Central Park Zoo to feed peanuts to squirrels. The squirrels were tame, and stood on their hind legs with their paws hanging in front of their chests. I see speakers with squirrel paws-limp hands, devoid of life—and I am not impressed. Squirrel-paw speakers don’t look like they can get anything done. Pump energy and life into your hands to put energy and life into your message.
Damage Factor: 5
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