Are Your Speech Gestures Too Small, Too Big, or Just Right?
By now, you know that you should be complementing your speech with gestures.
But do you know how big these gestures should be?
In this article, you’ll learn to match the size of your gestures to your audience and venue.
What is meant by gesture size?
Just as your voice can be loud or soft, your gestures can be large or small.
For example, consider the spectrum of hand and arm gestures.
- Gestures involving your fingers only are small gestures.
- Gestures pivoting at your wrist are a bit larger.
- Gestures pivoting at your elbow are larger still.
- Finally, gestures pivoting at your shoulder are large.
Okay, how do you choose the right size?
It depends. Gestures that are effective for one audience might be completely ineffective with another audience.
Factors you should consider are:
- the distance between you and your audience, and
- sight lines between you and your audience
- cultural and contextual factors
From these factors, we can derive some basic guidelines for effective body language.
In general, the farther your audience is from you, the larger and more pronounced your gestures need to be. Small audience = small gestures. Big audience = big gestures.
For example, when seated at a board room table, you might use a small hand gesture. When speaking in an auditorium, you need to use full arm gestures.
In general, if sight lines are clear, you can make smaller and more intricate gestures. If sight lines are partially blocked, you need larger (and higher) gestures.
Cultural and Contextual Factors
Cultural and contextual factors may impact the appropriate size for your gestures. A few examples are:
- The culture of your audience members may dictate more subdued gestures. (In general, beware the use of large gestures if you are not familiar with your audience’s culture.)
- When delivering a eulogy or news about layoffs, your gestures should be subdued.
- When speaking to children, your gestures can probably be magnified.
In all cases, it is best to research this as part of your audience analysis, particularly if you are speaking to a new group.
Example Scenarios for Speech Gestures
Let’s consider a few sample scenarios to illustrate how the size of your audience (and, by extension, the size of the room) influences which gestures are most effective.
1. Speech Gestures for a Small Group (2-6 people)
Example Scenario: You are having a conversation with a colleague in an office, or sitting at a table with customers.
Guidelines for this small group setting:
- Your gestures can be small and still effective because everyone is close to you.
- Finger gestures and hand gestures pivoting at the wrist can be effective.
For example, consider the finger gestures displayed by the man in photo A on the right.
- Eye gestures and facial expressions are inherently small gestures. They are critical in an intimate small-group setting, because everyone can see every nuance, both conscious and unconscious.
For example, the woman in photo B is communicating non-verbally simply with her eyes and facial expression.
- The smaller your audience is, the more likely that you will have their full attention. They will tend to be looking at your eyes with a rather narrow field of view. Therefore, small hand gestures may work best if you raise your hands up closer to your eyes.
For example, see how the man in photo C is gesturing with raised hands.
- Beware nervous gestures (e.g. tapping your fingers on the table; clicking a pen repeatedly) which are magnified in this setting.
2. Speech Gestures for a Medium Group (7-40 people)
Example Scenario: You are presenting to an audience which is seated around boardroom table, or in a small meeting room. You may be standing, or you may be seated yourself.
Guidelines for this medium group setting:
- Your gestures should be scaled up a bit as the average distance between you and the audience members increases.
- Your eye and facial gestures are still important. People in the front rows may still be able to see every nuance, both conscious and unconscious.
- Hand/arm gestures should pivot from your elbows at least.
For example, consider President Obama in photo D as he gestures with his arm pivoting from his elbow.
- Watch your sight lines! Hand gestures which pivot at the wrist may be too small for people to see, particularly if you are speaking with a lectern or if views are obscured (e.g. by computer screens).
For example, the man’s gesture in photo E may be invisible to his audience (and thus, ineffective) because it is blocked by the computer screen.
- Depending on the room layout, you may be able to incorporate some larger gestures with your upper body.
3. Speech Gestures for a Large Group (40-100 people)
Example Scenario: You are presenting a lunchtime seminar at a company, or perhaps a conference break-out session in a large meeting room. There probably is not a significant stage, nor is there raised seating (i.e. you are standing at the same level as your audience).
Guidelines for this large group setting:
- Your gestures should scale up even larger with arm gestures out and away from your body.
For example, the woman in photo F is gesturing with her arm which is pivoting from her shoulder.
- Eye and facial expressions become less important because they are probably invisible to much of the audience unless you really exaggerate them.
- Because of the obscured sight lines for most of your audience behind the first few rows, this can be the most challenging audience size because they can only see you from the chest and higher. Any gestures you make lower are invisible to much of the audience.
Note how the man in photo G has raised both his arms just under his face to gesture. This allows audience members to see him above the head of the person in front of them.
- One way to magnify smaller gestures is to hold them for a longer period of time and turn your body slightly as you display it. This increases the likelihood that more people will see the gesture.
4. Speech Gestures for a Huge Group (100+ people)
Example Scenario: You are presenting a keynote address at a conference. Audience seating is elevated as you move from front to back, and you are speaking from a stage which is probably set back from the front row.
Guidelines for this huge group setting:
- Your gestures need to scale up again. Full body gestures are necessary. Don’t hold back.
- Small gestures, like small objects, are invisible. Gestures with your fingers (e.g. putting up three fingers to indicate your third point) are invisible. Your audience will see your arm up, but they cannot see your fingers.
For example, consider Steve Jobs as he unveils the MacBook Air in photo H. He realizes that most of his audience cannot really see what he is holding. (And his hands and face are even smaller!) So, a photo of a manila envelope appears on the screen behind him to compensate.
- Eye and facial gestures are invisible. This does not mean you should have a “dead” face. Quite the opposite, you should still have expressive eye and facial gestures because this will tend to keep your vocal variety high.
- Because of improved sight lines, you can probably use “low” hand/arm gestures that are centered around your stomach and waist.
- Also, your legs are now visible and you can exploit this to great advantage with full body gestures such as strolling or kicking.
- In rare cases, a video system may be used to magnify you for your audience, as with the woman presenting in photo I. If this is the case, smaller gestures can, once again, be seen. Large gestures are probably still more effective.
Always be aware of the distance between you and your audience and the sight lines in the room. Based on this knowledge, scale your gestures accordingly and you will be effective.