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A recent study by Spencer Kelly, Associate Professor of Psychology, Colgate University showed that people were much quicker to understand any verbal message when the message was supported by appropriate gestures.

Gestures Speak Louder Than Words

When the gestures were either missing or didn’t match the message was harder to understand.

Some Gesture Vocabulary

Gestures reveal your inner attitude – something you’d sometimes prefer remain private.  Warm friendly gestures include leaning towards someone, facing them squarely, touching them, smiling, and using positive facial expression.

Lack of eye contact, absence of a smile, hidden palms, hands on hips, drumming, fidgeting, playing with clothes or jewelry, picking nails etc are perceived as cold or nervous.  Watch your gestures in unguarded moments.

There are some core gestures however that are almost like gesture ‘phrases’ that can be combined to tremendous positive or negative effect – by understanding those you’ll choose to use them for positive effective:

  • Palms. Your palms convey an enormous amount of information when engaged in a gesture.  In general palms down or hidden from view is closed gesture and authoritative – ‘I’m in charge’ or ‘this issue is not up for discussion’.  Palms up is the opposite: open, saying ‘trust me’, ‘I’m friendly’, ‘you’re my peer’, ‘let’s talk’, or ‘I’m open to discussion’.
  • Leaning in.  When you like someone or are interested in what they have to say you unconsciously lean in.  Everyone does.  Similarly, when you do not like someone you unconsciously lean away from them.  This is so ingrained in us that we are all unconsciously capable of reading this critical signal very effectively.  So anytime you want to indicate interest or positive attitude toward an individual or audience lean slightly towards them.  Be particularly wary of leaning away from someone in an unguarded moment- unless you’ve made a conscious decision to send a message of dislike, distrust, or disinterest then this is too powerful a message to get wrong.  Become aware of whether you’re leaning in or out and, if in doubt, don’t lean out!
  • Nodding. This is another simple but very telling basic gestural phrase – nodding indicates interest, and encourages the other person to continue doing or saying what they’re doing.  Not nodding sends a neutral or even disinterested impression.  Once again, unless you’re trying to signal disinterest use frequent nods accompanied by encouraging sounds to signal that you are positively interested to hear more of what they have to say.  Be careful, however, to use single well-spaced nods – double or triple nods in quick succession signal ‘speed up’ or ‘get to the point’.  Eye contact is great reinforcement here.
  • Relative Position & Openness. Standing square to someone, as long as you’re not too close to them given your relationship is a friendly and open statement – especially when the view of your solar plexus is unimpeded by your hands or other objects like desks, lecterns, PCs etc.  Standing at an angle signals your unconscious desire to get away, to find someone more interesting to talk to, or to protect yourself.

Inventory Your Gestures

Start to observe your own gestures and those around you.  If any negative gestures have slipped into your gesture vocabulary then focus upon replacing them with more positive alternatives.  Also observe those around you – especially those who have a charismatic demeanor.  What gestures do they employ?  When you see something that communicates effectively and suggests the charismatic impact you’re aiming for then assimilate it and make it your own.  Research by Maxwell Maltz’s (originator of ‘Psycho Cybernetics’) suggested that it takes 21 days of practice to make anything a habit – so don’t expect this to become second nature without some conscious focus and practice.

Once you become aware of your everyday gestures you’ll not only stop yourself from undermining whatever message you’re trying to convey, but you’ll also learn to consciously harness them to communicate even more effectively.


What’s your most persuasive use of gestures?

Use ‘Comments’ below to share your experience


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