How should you gesture in order to win the favor of the crowd, persuade the audience of your point of view, or appear most charismatic? I get asked variants on these questions all the time by speakers wanting to up their game, executives wishing to improve the odds of their success, and thought leaders wanting to get more attention for their ideas. The key to successful gesture is not what you think it is; it lies deep within the unconscious mind.

Most people have some awareness that crossing your arms appears defensive. But they also often believe – or have been taught – that you should minimize your gestures when speaking up in a meeting or giving a presentation, because do to otherwise is undignified.

Minimizing your gestures makes your brain work harder – so holding your hands still literally makes you dumber. Don’t do it. You need your hands to think with – we’ll talk about why in a moment – so let them flail.

The other tidbit about gesture that people have learned, often, has to do with controlling your hands in some specific gesture in order to appear smarter or in control. The most commonly cited one is the “spider-doing-push-ups-in-a-mirror” gesture, where you put your fingertips together in front of your chest in a kind of triangle. I’ve had people tell me, quite seriously, that the gesture is intimidating or promotes the image of yourself as a fearsome intellect.

Sadly, that’s not true. You’re going to have to work hard than merely putting your fingertips together to create that fearsome intellect. You might even have to think.

But enough of the bad gesturing lore – what should you do? Understand first the purpose of gesture. It’s more important than you might think. Intents, ideas, emotions, desires, decisions, wants, urges – they all originate within our unconscious minds. Once the unconscious mind has cooked them up, the next thing that happens is that you begin to act on them. Only after you begin to move does your conscious mind kick into gear and become aware of what’s going on.

You need gesture, in fact, in order to know what you’re thinking. Literally. Stifle your gestures and limit your thinking – your conscious awareness of what’s going on in the depths of your mind.

Just as you need gesture to understand what you’re thinking, other people need it for the same reason. We look to gesture (unconsciously, for the most part) to decode what other people really intend. We believe gestures to be a more reliable indicator of other people’s feelings, intents, and decisions than their words.

So if you’re going to think about your gestures, and work to control them in order to be more charismatic or persuasive, then you need to begin by gesturing before you speak. If you do it the other way, you’ll look fake. It doesn’t have to be much before you speak, but if you’re gesturing your house, for example, then start the gesture a split second before you utter the word “house,” and you’ll look human. Gesture after you speak, and you’ll look like an awkward politician who has been coached badly.

Once you’ve mastered this basic tenet of gesturing, then you can begin to work on gesturing in ways that are more open, and that develop trust with your audience, as well as those more magical and elusive things like persuasiveness and charisma.

But it all begins with the gesture. Before the word.

I’ll talk more about openness and trust in a subsequent post.

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