My Hall of Fame Speaker friend Alvin Law, CSP* from Alberta, Canada, was born without arms. I’ve heard him speak several times. It takes quite a mental adjustment to get used to someone standing on a stage sprouting forth so confidently with no gestures whatsoever.
As a child things were pretty tough for Alvin, but when you don’t have arms you learn to cope without them. In Alvin’s case he learned to thrive. I believe he thought about it long and hard as a child and decided that what he lacked in arms he’d make up in attitude.
He also learned to drive. In 2009 Alvin drove me from his home (where I was staying) in Calgary to the CAPS annual speaker convention downtown. Being December the roads were icy. I have never felt safer in a motor car than I did that day with Alvin behind the wheel. He used his feet to start the car and steer.
Most people have an advantage that Alvin doesn’t have – arms, two of them. If you have two arms, can you begin to imagine what it would be like to live without just one of them? They are incredible things and can do amazing stuff. With arms you can organise all your presentation gear much easier and quicker than Alvin ever could.
When Alvin speaks to an audience, which he does brilliantly, he cannot gesture even if he wants. He compensates by using his voice skilfully. For body language he excels at eye contact. Of course, his story is riveting. I’ve often imagined what kind of speaker he’d be if he could gesture too?
Gestures are one of 3 key connecting tools for speakers. They describe objects, instruments, distances, heights, feelings – a multitude of things in a compelling way. No wonder sign language, made up entirely of gestures and facial expressions can be used so effectively to communicate with the deaf. We instinctively understand the meanings of scores of gestures, even rude ones!
I’m often asked if a speaker can gesture too much. Well I guess so, but I’ve seldom seen it. I’ve often seen speakers gesture too little. If a speaker’s arms are dangling at her side the whole time it looks kind of awkward, doesn’t it?
My advice is to allow yourself to use gestures naturally. Practice in front of the mirror, see how your gestures come across. Watch out for favourite or repetitive gestures and teach yourself to mix them up.
Sometimes your hands may be occupied with cue cards or a clicker or both. Position a table near to you where you can put these things down for a while or transfer them to one hand when you’re not using them, then use your free hand to gesture.
Most of your movement should come from gesturing rather than striding around. It’s fine to walk about the stage, but when you’re making an important point, it’s better to plant your feet firmly on the ground and use gestures to back up your voice. A small stage can often restrict walking, but you don’t need much space to gesture. It is however important to use big, bold gestures often. Big gestures also serve to raise your energy levels resulting in better projection and a perception of greater enthusiasm from the audience. They also help you to relax quicker and get into your stride. Little apologetic gestures make you appear nervous and unsure of yourself.
I urge you to embrace gesturing as an important component of any public speaking. You will not only come across as being more confident, you’ll also feel it!
I alluded earlier to the 3 key connecting tools for speakers. The other 2 are your voice and eyes, tools that Alvin has mastered.
Paul du Toit, CSP, SASHoF
Alvin Law is the author of Alvin’s Laws of Life – 5 Steps To Successfully overcome Anything.
- CSP = Certified Speaking Professional
- HoF = Hall of Fame