Watching the U.S. presidential candidates debate isn’t just about hearing their respective messages. It’s a chance to compare their policy positions, but it’s also an opportunity to see how they communicate, carry themselves, and interact with one another.
Consciously or otherwise, we make assessments about the candidates based on their body language, expressions, tone of voice, and hand gestures. Watching last months’s Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, I was struck by the differences Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders showed when it came to the latter.
Sanders energetically moved his hands up, down, and side to side almost constantly. Clinton, on the other hand, used gestures far more sparingly and was careful to connect them to what she was saying. There’s no fundamentally right or wrong approach to gesturing while you speak, but it’s important to know what your hands might be saying to your audience while you’re busy talking.
Think about the last time you were on a treadmill. Set it to slow, and you take a relaxed stroll. Increase the speed, and you’ll break into a run, leaving you feeling exhilarated and intense. Likewise, your gestures can help you control the energy level of your talk. If you’re at a nine or 10, you’ll probably project determination, power, and intensity. If you’re at a two or a three, composure, balance, precision. By modulating your hand gestures according to your energy level, you’ll be able to control the mood and demeanor you convey to your audience.
When you take a picture for Snapchat or Instagram, you need to decide what to focus on. Likewise, when you gesture, you’re choosing what you want your audience to pay most attention to—you or your message. If you want to put the focus mainly on yourself, gesture rhythmically. When you move your hands up, down, and around in no particular pattern, you’re just creating the impression of motion so your audience is more likely to direct its attention at you, regardless of what you’re actually saying.
If you want to push the content of your message to the fore, though, you need to gesture more deliberately. You can use your hands to create an image of the concept you’re explaining. For example, if you were talking about “achieving more,” you might raise your hand with your palm facing down, creating an image of a baseline moving upward. Directing your audience’s focus onto your message can make your talk more vivid and precise.
One of the most fundamental decisions we make when we see someone speak—whether they’re a politician, a boss, or a friend—is, “Do I trust you?” As kids, many of us played games like “truth or dare” to learn how to detect signals that reveal whether a person is lying or telling the truth.
I’ve worked with leaders who need help inspiring trust, and one of the most common problems I’ve observed is that their gesture timing is out of sync. Think about how irritated you get when you’re watching a TV show and the audio is just slightly behind the video. It drives you crazy! When I was at the Film Board of Canada, we were asked to talk out loud while listening to ourselves through headphones with a tenth of a second lag. Within a minute, everyone’s speaking was completely garbled.
Hand gestures can sometimes lag behind or rush ahead of your words. When you speak spontaneously, it’s likely that your gestures will slightly precede your words, because those gestures are connected to your thoughts (and we think considerably faster than we speak). Since that’s natural, your listeners will perceive those gestures for what they are—spontaneous and therefore authentic representations of your train of thought.
Things get tricky when you have a prepared message that you need to convey in real time. In those situations, even if you’re speaking without notes, your gestures can sometimes show up late and look too deliberate. Your audience notices that lag and can interpret it mistrustfully.
In her latest book, Presence, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that this is a product of self-deception—not really believing what you’re saying. “And this self-deception is, it turns out, observable to others as our confidence wanes and our verbal and nonverbal behaviors become dissonant,” she writes. “It’s not that people are thinking, ‘He’s a liar.’ It’s that people are thinking, ‘Something feels off. I can’t completely invest my confidence in this person.’”
In the months ahead, there will only be more opportunities to size up the presidential contenders. So keep an eye on their gestures and what they’re telling you, then think about your own: What are your hand gestures telling your audience when you speak? The more conscious you train yourself to become of that, the more power and precision you’ll be able to inject into your talk. And in the meantime—whatever you do—don’t just leave your hands hanging limply at your sides.