What if you could watch yourself speaking on video and not recoil? What if, instead, you could enjoy the experience and, more importantly, eagerly learn from it? I’ve hit upon a way to dodge the trauma of self-induced video revulsion. My technique transforms the subjective hyper-self-criticism from “I hate watching myself on video” to the objective revelation of “Wow, I had no idea I did that!”
To pull this rabbit out of my hat, I flourish a couple of Post-It notes like a magician’s handkerchief.
Imagine you and I are about to watch your video. I keep two large Post-It notes handy. I stick them on the screen as I cue up your video but before I hit play. With one Post-It note I cover your face and head. (You chuckle, and then thank me!) The other I place below the first, parallel to it at waist height. This forces you to focus on the zone of gesturing between your waist and shoulders, where the real action takes place. This painless decapitation completely objectifies your viewing experience. It’s as if you’re watching someone else. Poof! Like magic, your subjective revulsion vanishes and objective revelation begins.
I ask you to listen carefully to the words you’re saying, but keep your eyes focused on the instinctive, unconscious gestures that accompany those words. The result is reliably startling. At the beginning your hands may reveal only the impulse to gesture. These first spasms are small, fast, and jerky, but after two minutes, your adrenaline rush diminishes, you loosen up, and full-blown gestures emerge.
At this point you’ll say what others do, “I had no idea that I was doing that!” Gesturing is governed by unconscious instinct. That’s why you have no conscious idea you’re doing it. Watching the video this way, everyone is astonished at how often they gesture as they speak. Even people who know that they gesture in conversation are amazed to see how precisely the gestures mirror the words being spoken.
Even more surprising than the quantity of gesturing is the quality of how the gestures interact with words. Shakespeare described what the video reveals. In the play Hamlet he invokes natural gestures with this simple binary instruction: “Suit the action to the word, and the word to the action.” That’s what we’re looking at. Your gestural action is suited to the words you’re saying, and the words suit the action of the gestures. Researchers call them “co-speech gestures.” As the means to a variety of useful ends, there are many advantages to trusting and liberating your instinctive gestures immediately while speaking.
Gestures as Visual Aids
First, gestures function as visual aids for listeners. It’s why they respond, “I see what you mean” or “I see what you’re talking about.” They “see” what? Gestures. Maybe this explains why some speakers—watch those impassioned politicians and pundits on cable news—begin aggressive comments with the command, “Look!”
Gesture and Pace
Second, gesturing affects the pace at which we talk. Fast talkers see themselves on the video gesturing quickly as they speak too quickly. The opposite action is why we compliment fluent, articulate speakers by calling them “smooth.” It’s observably true. The gestures of skillful speakers are usually smooth. Nervous speakers do the opposite; they talk too fast with fast, jerky gestures. It’s impossible to gesture fast and talk slow. When you smooth out your gestures, you help control your pace.
Gesture and Meaning
Third, gestures contribute directly to the meaning and clarity of your thoughts. The gestures function much like yellow highlighter on the page; they highlight important words. Your headless video reveals that connection. Like the chicken or the egg, which comes first, emphatic gestures or emphatic words? Both. Meaning and clarity are enhanced when you stress key words which unlock the meaning for listeners. Once a lawyer sees how much the gestures enhance verbal emphasis, they confidently liberate the instinct and speak with greater clarity and meaning.
You notice one more indirect benefit of your gestures when I eventually remove the Post-It note to reveal your face. There is a subtle connection between gesture and facial animation. Have you ever wondered why people contort their faces while lifting heavy objects, or tense their facial muscles, perhaps even stick out a tongue slightly, as they concentrate on passing a thread through the eye of a needle? That happens in a region of the brain called the motor cortex, where the area that controls the muscles of your face are right next to the area that controls the muscles of your hands. As the hands gesture, natural facial expression is stimulated and animated indirectly.
Try this idea yourself. Since you have a smart phone that includes a video camera function, use it. As you practice out loud and on your feet for a presentation, make a video with your phone and watch it with Post-Its at the ready. Or ask a colleague to make a video with your phone and record you speaking whether standing or sitting. Watch that video and be amazed as your invisible gesturing becomes visible.