Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal.
You’ve probably heard some version of this oft-quoted statistic that comes from a 1967 research study. While our understanding of verbal and nonverbal communication has become more nuanced over the past 50 years, there’s no denying that what you communicate goes far beyond the words you speak. When you use gestures, in particular, what you’re saying physically may or may not line up with what you’re saying verbally.
Here are three questions your gestures answer for your audience:
1. Where should we focus?
Your audience will focus on either you or your message, depending on how you use your gestures. If your gestures are seemingly random, or you have distracting movements like shaking a leg or tapping a finger, you are telling your audience to focus on you — not your message. On the other hand, if you only use gestures that are meaningfully connected to what you’re saying, your audience will focus on your message.
For example, if you mention “shrinking margins,” you could put your hands in front of your body in “karate chop” form, moving them closer together as you say the words. By connecting your words to a gesture, you will reinforce your message with your audience.
2. How should we feel?
Your gestures can also tell your audience how they should feel about what you’re saying. If you want to pump your people up, then strong, intense gestures may be appropriate. But if you’re announcing bad news, you want your gestures to be smoother and closer to your body.
While this distinction might seem obvious, gestures can often be completely unconscious — so you may be sending your audience mixed messages without even realizing it. Make sure you are gesturing in a way that reinforces how you want your audience to feel.
3. Can we trust you?
Finally, gestures can affect whether or not your audience trusts you. If you want your gestures to look natural, they need to be connected to your thoughts, not your words. Don’t try to time your gestures with the words you are saying — you will look mechanical. Instead, if you just think about the concept you are trying to express, you will gesture in a way that looks authentic and natural, not tacked-on.
If we go back to the shrinking margins example from earlier, you should think about the concept of shrinking margins so that you’re already starting the gesture by the time you say the actual words. By connecting gestures to your thoughts and not your words, you will show you’re speaking from the heart — and your audience will trust you.
If you want to be a great speaker, self-awareness is absolutely critical. By understanding what your gestures are saying about you, you will greatly enhance both the strength of your key messages and your overall leadership presence.