How to master your gestures to become a more effective communicator

Public Speaking Gestures

Every communication is two conversations. The first conversation is the one you’re aware of — the content. The second conversation is the one that you’re an unconscious expert on — the non-verbal one.

These two conversations always go together. They are so integral to one another that most people tend to gesture with their hands and face even when they’re talking on the phone. Think about it. No one else can see them, yet they keep gesturing on regardless. Why do they do it?

Is it just habit? No — there’s a profound reason why people gesture when they attempt to communicate, even when they can’t be seen.

We tend to think about the second conversation that it’s merely an accompaniment to the first. We talk, and we wave our hands in the air, as a poor substitute or stand-in for content. We believe, if we ever think about it, that the gestures are just follow-ons; something to do with our hands, something that clarifies the meaning, or emphasizes something being said, or helps keep the other person listening. Something that follows the words, perhaps — a physical flourish to enhance our sometimes less-than-thrilling content.

That’s not what’s going on.

Gesture can convey meaning independent of words.

Try the following experiment. Sit in a public place, say a restaurant where the tables are close together and the conversation is lively. Sit with your back to a pair of people who are having one of those animated conversations. Listen hard. Try to get as much of it as you can.

You will be surprised at how hard it is to follow the conversation. You will hear broken phrases, agreement to something you haven’t caught, simultaneous talking, abrupt changes of topic you weren’t expecting (but for some reason the speakers were), apparently incoherent exchanges of information.

If it’s an average, reasonably equal exchange, you will be astonished at how fragmentary and elusive the communication is.

Why is that?

We communicate first with the gesture for some things, and only second with the word.

Because the ‘second conversation’ is really the first. For certain kinds of communications, indeed most of the ones we really care about, we communicate first with the gesture, and second with the word.

What does that mean? It means that when people communicate topics of great importance to them, they gesture what they intend a split second before the word comes out.

In fact, one way of looking at the brain contrasts our cerebral cortex with our limbic brain, and suggests that certain kinds of gesture originate in the limbic a split second before the cortex fires away with its conscious thoughts. In other words, rather than thinking, I’m hungry so I’ll pick up that cup now, our brains direct the cup to be picked up unconsciously, and then form a conscious explanation of what we’re doing.(I just picked up that cup because I’m hungry.)

Why should we care about that? Because it turns the common-sense way we think about word and gesture upside down, and because those interesting implications flow from that inversion of common sense.

Gesture comes first.

You can confirm this for yourself if you go back to that restaurant, this time keeping your eyes firmly trained on those two people in conversation and listening very closely. Focus especially on gestures that accompany the noun phrases. How did you get there? I took an airplane. Let’s say that’s one of the exchanges you hear and see. Watch the gesture associated with the word airplane. Depending on the information being conveyed, the gesture will start before the entire sentence, or just before the word airplane itself.

If there’s strong attitude, such as, something like, Of course I took an airplane; it’s 3,000 miles away over water. How else would I get there, you idiot? then the gesture may convey all the emotional freight in the communiqué — all the Of course it’s 3,000 miles away over water how else would I get there you idiot part. The person might shrug and turn her palms upward, while raising her eyebrows and looking hard at the interlocutor. She might shake her head and offer a half-smile. Those facial and hand gestures would get across all the emotional meaning she wished to convey to her friend. Maybe not in precisely those words, but close enough for both parties to get the message.

It’s the nature of most of our communications that they unroll like this one — we use surprisingly few words, and convey the emotional colors and tones of the conversation mostly through gesture.

When two people know each other well, the words are even less important.

When two people know each other well, gesture can take up a larger part of the communications between them. In this regard, gesture becomes a kind of shortcut that allows the two to alert one another to important shifts in the conversation or strong feelings or topics to avoid. When two lovers meet, for example, not the ones in movies that have just fallen in love, but those who have had an intimate relationship for a long time, a touch, a few murmured words, and a kiss may convey all that needs to be said about a day, a meeting, or an important issue that has been pending between them.

Love is expressed primarily through gesture. A look, an arch of the eyebrow, a touch, a kiss. You get the idea.

Our most important dialogues with others take place non-verbally.

Many of our dialogues with others — and most of our important ones — take place non-verbally. Large portions of them are unconscious.

So gesture comes first, and it conveys most of the emotion that a communication intends. And, in addition to emotion, certain other basic things are conveyed. Relationships, spatial distances between people, physical motion and place in general, basic needs like food, shelter, sex, and so on — all of these are first gesture conversations, then only secondarily and later content conversations. Think of it as everything that a smart cave man and woman would need to get along on a typical busy day defending the hearth, slaying wooly mammoths, raising the kids, and creating those cave paintings in the few minutes at the end of the day that a cave person can call his or her own.

What else is going on?

Unconscious thought is faster and more efficient than conscious thought.

As a species, we’re always trying to articulate our feelings, and telling people to get in touch with them, and so on, but in fact they’re doing quite well unconsciously. Unconscious thought is faster, more efficient, and may have saved your life on more than one occasion. It’s just that it isn’t conscious.

Here’s the next implication. Two people — or a leader and her audience — can have an unconscious communication, one that is entirely composed of gestures of various kinds, and only realize it consciously later on, or not at all.

The two conversations don’t even have to be connected.

When I say every communication is two conversations, both verbal and non-verbal, I mean that precisely. They don’t have to have an immediate, obvious connection. They often do, but they don’t have to. Think about the exchange between two people where one is bearing very bad news to the other. The bearer may gesture strong signals of comfort, love and solidarity while quietly stating the shattering news in a simple, unadorned way.

There, the two conversations, though of course connected, are proceeding along two parallel tracks, and it is easier to see how the gesture is not merely an after-thought to the words. In fact, that kind of communication usually begins with the reassuring gesture or the look, which is what alerts the recipient that bad news is coming.

Or think about when two people are carrying on a flirtation under the noses of their colleagues while talking about meeting 2Q quotas, for example. There, the two conversations are unrelated, to the great private amusement of the flirters.

Body language tells us what we think about other people.

People decode emotions primarily through gesture (and tone of voice). The emotional component represents a separate, non-verbal conversation that goes on parallel to the verbal one, and typically a split second before the verbal one.

Leaders must master both conversations, but especially the second.

That conversation will make or break you as a communicator. Again, you may be entirely unaware of it, but it may confirm you as the top dog, sabotage your authority, connect you with your mate for life, get you in a fist fight (or out of one), win you a game, or lose one, blow your chances at getting a raise, get you the big sale, lose you the prize, or win it — and so on and on through most of the big moments in life.

How can you become more aware of this conversation that your body is having with the other bodies around you? Is it worth the effort? Will you become self-conscious and inauthentic if you do? Can you monitor what everyone else is ‘saying’? Is that helpful? Will it get you to places you won’t otherwise reach?

Understanding the second conversation is key to leadership today, because it’s not something that you can leave to chance or the unconscious. There are simply too many decisions to be made, too many inputs to weigh, too many players to manage and lead. In the twenty-first century, the pace of leadership has accelerated, the flow of information has exploded, and the sheer physical and intellectual demands on leaders have intensified. You can’t rely on common sense or instinct or winging it today as you once might have done.

How can leaders get started on mastering their second conversation?

Here are a few next steps:

  • Begin by simply noticing other people’s body language — when do they move toward people, when do they move away; who ‘mirrors’ whom in a grouping of three people or more; who is leading and who is following?
  • Next, get yourself videoed so that you can begin to understand your own typical gestures in a variety of settings. Most people are very poor monitors of their own behavior without video.
  • Focus on your intent, or your emotions, before important meetings, conferences, presentations, and so on. Because intent drives gesture, if you get the right intent you’ll use the right gestures. So think to yourself, “This is a great opportunity. I’m really open to these people; they’re all going to become my friends.” That kind of intent will ensure that your gestures are open and welcoming.
  • As you become comfortable monitoring your own and other people’s body language (and yes, it is a skill you can learn), try introducing some particular gestures into a conversation, a meeting, or a speech. This deliberate gesturing takes practice to make it look natural, of course, but can help you take control of an important situation by sending out the right unconscious emotional messages to everyone else in the room. For example, you can calm emotions when they’re stormy, or help people open up and relax when they’re tense, and so on.

The camera is always on you.

In addition, with camcorders and YouTube everywhere, you have to assume that your life as a leader is almost entirely transparent. This relentless scrutiny means that your decisions are subject to endless second-guessing after the fact. Most of life is now subject to the instant replay. How good will you look in slow motion?

Leaders who rely on ad-libbing and improvisation risk looking unprepared and stilted. The irony of leadership in the media age is that winging it looks fake and only the prepared can look authentic.

This raises the stakes on our cave person communication skills. We need to learn how to control the non-verbal conversation just as well as we control the content discussions of our lives. It’s time to stop leaving the emotional side of leadership to chance. It’s time to make ourselves self-aware of, and aware of others’ need for, the second conversation, the physical messages our limbic brains send out faster than we can think about ourselves, our surroundings, and the others in our lives.

If you can accomplish that, you can enhance your leadership skills, increase your authority, and intensify your personal charisma.

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