Principle V: The source of our nonverbal conversation is deep in the oldest part of the brain, in emotions, survival, and relationships – all that’s fundamental to our connections with others and with our surroundings.
Recent brain research has shown us something about the way our minds work that’s deeply counter-intuitive: we gesture before we think. We believe it’s the other way around because we’re aware, naturally enough, of our conscious thoughts first. But in some very important ways, we ‘think’ with our bodies, nonverbally, first.
What’s going on is that our unconscious brain is always busy sizing up our surroundings, connecting with people, with the environment, and with our own place in it all. We are rarely aware of all that unconscious work. It’s only in occasional flashes of what people call ‘intuition’ or ‘gut’ or ‘instinct’ that we sense our unconscious minds at work.
In fact, it’s a good thing that we’re constructed this way; if we had to be consciously aware of all that activity, we’d react far too slowly to threats and opportunities in the environment, because our conscious minds work much more slowly than our unconscious minds do.
The unconscious is incredibly fast, extraordinarily proficient at what it does, and that’s a good thing.
What does the speed of gestures and other unconscious ‘thought’ have to do with public speaking?
One very simple thing. If you think consciously about your gestures as a speaker, you’re likely to gesture too late and as a result you’ll look stiff and awkward, like a badly
coached politician. The natural progression of gesture and speech works like this: intent – gesture – thought – speech. But if you think consciously about your gestures, you will do this: thought – speech – gesture. The problem is that your gesture will happen too late in the sequence. Since we are all extraordinarily good at unconsciously evaluating gesture, we will notice – unconsciously – that you’re gesturing oddly, and we will think that you are inauthentic, or fake, or foolish as a result.
So if you’re determined to use certain gestures in your public speaking, make sure they happen before the words they’re connected to, or you’ll look like a Saturday Night Live sketch, and not in a good way.