This post is mostly for novice/intermediate debaters. Click here to skip to a more advanced part.
There was a group of people in the late 1800s who believed that crowds could be manipulated by a very specific set of gestures. The “elocutionists”, as they were called, had books that they would study carefully, full of specific formulas for various speeches. If they wanted to convey certain concepts or emotions, they had specific gestures already planned.
Now we know better than that. We realize that crowds have widely varying emotions, and no one gesture will affect them all the same way. Plus, the style of speaking that people value today is completely different from the past. These gestures would look ridiculous to modern audiences.
The downside to this is that many people are afraid to use effective gestures, because they feel that it’s unnatural. Sometimes, people who are new to debate think they are making good use of their hands, when those same hands are hanging like limp fish by their side.
If you are the type of person who doesn’t use your hands in conversation, that’s okay.
But you need to fix that for speaking. Someone who speaks without their hands in front of an audience looks like a bobble-head. (Thanks for that comparison, Simon).
If you are new to debate, it is quite likely that you think you are using your hands, but they are just flopping around like dead fish in a barrel. 🙁
To find out if your hand motions need help, it’s best to consult your coach. If you don’t have one or want to find out quicker, watch videos of good speakers and then compare them to videos of yourself.
If you are indeed too timid with your body language, then try simply exaggerating your movements. Do gestures larger than you feel comfortable doing. You might think it’s too much, but it will probably be just right. After doing this for a while, videotape yourself or speak to the mirror to see your progress.
Other hand motion issues
For now I’m going to ignore the entire problem of distracting behaviors (such as swaying or pacing). That’s a subject for a different post.
The most frequent problem I see besides timid hand motions is repeated, boring, or irrelevant hand motions. Chopping your hand down into your other hand while reading the boring part of evidence is probably not helping you illustrate your point.
Here are a few things you can do now to improve your gestures:
- Make open gestures with your palms facing the audience. This makes you appear more confident, and it also makes the audience trust you more.
- Spend some time watching videos of good public speakers, and noticing what types of gestures they use to illustrate different points.
- Think through a speech that you frequently give (such as your first affirmative speech), and brainstorm gestures that you could use at different points in that speech.
- Remember that you don’t need to use two hands for every gesture.
- Don’t gesture all the time, because that begins to be redundant and obnoxious.
- Increase the size of your gestures. If appropriate, a hand motion in which your hands are beyond your shoulders displays confidence.
- Make sure your gestures are specific, fluid movements, not just a random chaotic wave of a hand.
- Remember that gestures add emphasis to words. If you are afraid of hand motions, at least use them during important parts of your sentences.
Remember that the way you see yourself (or feel yourself) speaking is different from how others see you. This is important because you might be hypercritical of yourself. Or, even worse, you might not see what is wrong!
That’s why it is important to discuss this with your debate coach if you are newer, since they will be able to help you identify what you need to improve on.
The only way to get really good at gestures is to practice. So what are you waiting for?
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