I was participating in a workshop with the late Paul Sills many years ago. You don’t likely know his name, but Sills is one of the founders of The Second City in Chicago. Second City is known for sketch and improvisational comedy, and is the birthplace of such stars as Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd. Improvisation is a skill that is becoming widely recognized as an important tool for communication in the business world, and I was eager to learn from one of the masters. Sills was known for being a bit cranky (I am being kind, here), so our group of sixteen improv professionals from around the country were prepared to be taken down a peg or two at his hand.
During one exercise, two participants were engaged in a conversation in which they had to resolve an issue, but they could not talk directly about the issue. As the rest of us observed the exercise, we thought they were doing a good job, but halfway into the exercise Sills stood up and walked up to one of the men and said, “Are you aware of the fact that we can see you?” This took us aback. We were so focused on the challenge of the exercise that we forgot that the underlying goal of any communication is to capture and hold the attention of the audience/listener. Sills had another pair try the exercise, reminding them that, in order to hold an audience’s attention, they had to move around. Halfway through this attempt, during which neither person moved more than a few times, Sills lost his patience. He stood up and yelled, “Move. Move. Look at ballet dancers, they never run out of goddam moves!” It sometimes took a minute to figure out what Sills meant, but it somehow made sense.
What does this have to do with business? A lot. All communication—whether it is two people sitting across a desk, a pitch in a small meeting room, or a major presentation in a conference ballroom—demands movement on the part of the presenter. The reason physical movement is necessary boils down to basic neurology. The visual cortex of the human brain evolved long before the auditory cortex; it is much larger and more efficient at gathering and evaluating input. Essentially, the brain is wired to see much better than it is to hear. If you only stand and speak, you are relying on the lesser efficient part of the listener’s brain to do the work. And the more work you ask the brain to perform, the quicker it will shut down.
To illustrate this point for my corporate clients, I play a game that I encourage you to try. I stand in front of the group and tell them that I will attempt to deliver a message. For the first attempt, I will not move at all. I will keep my hands at my sides and use only words. I ask the group to raise their hands when they first start to feel they are losing focus; that it is hard to listen to me speak. When I speak without physical movement, it only takes 15-20 seconds before their hands go up. And I am not talking about a few mentally restless audience members; with few exceptions, every hand in the room goes up at the same time. Human brains are pretty much wired the same.
Then I try a second attempt, but I add gestures. For instance, when I refer to something important, I make an accompanying gesture. If I refer to eye contact, I gesture slightly to my eyes. If I refer to the idea of two-person communication, I make a gesture that connotes back-and-back movement. By adding gestures to the presentation, I am able to deliver the same message and keep the audience’s attention. The surprising thing is, I use the exact same wording in both attempts. The only difference is, in the second attempt, I access the part of the brain that is more efficient; the visual cortex.
It is important to note that gestures demand a specific requirement; they must be a visual representation of the idea, not just random movements. Random movements are not gestures. We have all seen people who just move their hands around when they talk. This movement is not a gesture because it does not refer to a specific idea. Random movement is unconscious, and distracting. Random movement quickly becomes annoying for the listener to watch.
When working with executives to improve their presentation skills, I often add gestures to their script. If they are referring to an issue that has global implications, we will note that a wide gesture of some kind is needed. It doesn’t matter which gesture you use, as long as it visually represents the idea. In fact, I encourage people to avoid using the same gesture for a given concept too often; doing so can dull your skills. And you don’t use the same size gesture in every situation. Naturally, you wouldn’t make the same sweeping movement at a dinner table that you would in front of an audience of 500 people. Also, gestures should be used only for important ideas throughout a presentation. Too much gesturing is just as bad as too little.
If you observe people having day-to-day conversations, you will see that gestures are a natural function of communication. So, why is it that people stand stock still like mannequins during a formal presentation? Many reasons. One is nervousness. Humans don’t learn communication skills in a presentation environment. We learn to communicate in close-knit family and social situations. Standing in front of group isn’t natural for people, so it takes practice to bring your genuine self to an un-genuine environment. Another reason is gender. Because the communication system in the female brain is spread through the entire brain system, whereas the male brain has more of a central communication core, women tend to use their hands more when they speak. This isn’t a good or a bad thing, it is just one of the many differences between the sexes. Finally, our natural social mentality causes a mirroring between speaker and audience. Humans tend to blend into their social group, matching vocal dialect, physicality, and such. Since no one else in the room is gesturing during the presentation, it puts pressure on the speaker to do likewise. However, given the impact that movement and gestures have on peoples’ ability to listen and retain a message, the benefits of becoming adept at movement certainly outweigh the fears that must be overcome. Remember, we can see you.
A major obstacle in using gestures lies in voice-to-voice communication; on the telephone. If you want to access the same benefits of using gestures when people can’t see you, look at the video that accompanies this column on the Business Journal website.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.