When You Pitch an Idea, Please GESTURE!

Each of us has received implicit and explicit messages about how expressive we should be – and when it might be too much! Don’t talk with your hands so much, my German mother has said to me at different stages in my life. When I was a teenager. When I became a middle-aged man. I talk a lot with my hands, a client will often say to me when we work on a presentation, as if to apologize. You know, I come from ______ (you fill in the culture). We gesture a lot! I will observe my client in action and invariably think to myself, hmmm, I wish s/he would gesture a lot more. Internalized self-editing. Lots of it. If you’ve ever been coached on a presentation by your boss or a presentation skills coach, you likely received guidance like Use gestures that are appropriateGesture to emphasize a point. And yes, again, Don’t gesture too much. Eeeeeeeeek. Those mixed messages about gesturing go deep. In the end, they all have the same impact. They put the fear of God in you about gesturing. Period. Consider recent research by Joep Cornelissen of Erasmus University in Rotterdam on the matter, featured in the Harvard Business Review (HBR, May-June 2019, page 36). Cornelissen and his research team found that gestures were a really critical way to get investors to buy into a fictional device that helped people recover from sports injuries.

The Study:

Experienced investors were asked to watch a video of an entrepreneur pitching this new device. The entrepreneur – played by an actor – delivered 4 different versions of the presentation: One used a lot of figurative language. One included frequent hand motions. One deployed both. One used neither. The people who saw the video with only the frequent gestures were an average 12% more interested in investing. 12% may not seem like much. In a competitive situation – and in any formal presentation - 12% more can be THE big differentiator. Words matter, of course. Pay attention to them. But gestures matter more. This finding brings us back to the perennial question of well, yeah, but what kind of gestures? Back to appropriate but not too much, right? Here’s where Cornellison’s work is especially compelling.

He distinguishes between 4 types of gestures that many of us use, usually without much intentional thought:

  • Beat gestures: These are motions that mark the rhythm of our speech and repetitively emphasize its beats.
  • Speech-structuring gestures: These are gestures that indicate the start or end of a sentence or highlight a point we wish to make.
  • Symbolic gestures: These are gestures that symbolically amplify something I say. For example – when I say I’m so happy you all are here and at the same time extend my hands in the form of an open, welcoming gesture.
  • Illustrative gestures: These are gestures that may reproduce the form of an object, point to a prop, describe a movement or even express a feeling.
Other variables, of course, influence how we respond to a person’s gestures. Male entrepreneurs are much more likely to receive funding than female entrepreneurs; our conscious or unconscious biases around gender will affect how we experience a presentation, including the gestures of the presenter. And there are cultural preferences around how cool or warm we want a business presentation to be. The worst kind of guidance you will receive tends to come from a friend who means well: Just gesture naturally. Well some folks “naturally” do not gesture at all. Others will “naturally” revert to gestures that are fidgety and distracting. So yes – while we want our gestures to flow, be natural and not forced, we also want to be mindful and intentional about them. One of the psychological reasons why gestures so powerfully drive how we receive a message, regardless of cultural context, is also borne out by Cornelissen’s research: We tend to experience persons who gesture easily as confident. We tend to feel that they’re excited about what they’re talking about. And we tend to view them as a little charismatic. And although there is lots of evidence that this is not necessarily true – we may start to think of them as a stronger leader. The better candidate. The one who can get it done. Investigating our gestural vocabulary is a life-long journey. Being mindful of our gestures is helpful. Being intentional is, as well. Being self-conscious is NOT. So go and observe. Experiment. And do it with ease. Related: The Rewards of Telling the Truth