Public-speaking skills and leadership style are closely related. A speaker’s gestures—and other forms of nonverbal communication—are a reflection of certain parameters of his or her behavior as a team leader. I recently studied short presentations given by men and women and analyzed the types of gestures they used in front of the audience. I found that both sexes made similar amounts of mistakes, but that men and women tended to make different types of mistakes.
Even when speakers have a clear idea of the knowledge and message they want to communicate, gestural behavior can derail efforts to achieve empathy with the audience and convey an image of authority. In fact, nonverbal communication is on a par with voice control as one of the key ways in which speakers signal authority to the audience. While some gestures buttress an image of power, others can erode a speaker’s authority.
Protective hand gestures and pacing can be signs that the sympathetic nervous system is generating an automatic fight-or-fight response.
Gestural differences and similarities between men and women
Both men and women tend to repeat the same gestures while speaking in public, possibly to protect themselves from the audience. From an emotional perspective, speaking in front of a large group of people is akin to being on trial, so gestures are a natural way to protect one’s self-esteem.
In my analysis, I found that both sexes commit the following types of mistakes, in descending order of frequency: defensive hand movements, unbalanced posture, and nervous pacing. Protective hand gestures and pacing can be signs that the sympathetic nervous system is generating an automatic fight-or-fight response. Both types of actions originate in the nervous system as a self-defense mechanism in dangerous situations.
The most noticeable differences between the sexes have to do with the types of gestures used. Women tend to shift their weight to one side and keep their arms firmly at their sides, while men are more likely to pace back and forth and use verbal fillers like “eh” or “um.”
While some gestures buttress an image of power, others can erode a speaker’s authority.
Gestures can have a negative impact on the audience
What gestures prevent speakers from conveying authority to the audience, and why? Let’s take a look at various actions involving different parts of the body. When it comes to controlling the gaze, speakers should avoid staring directly at a single person or looking down or away to avoid eye contact with the audience. As for facial expressions, limited movement of the facial muscles is often a sign of a tense speaker.
As for hand gestures, speakers should avoid clasping their hands for no purpose other than protecting themselves from the audience, putting their hands in their pockets, or playing with a pen to release tension. The most common mistakes—found in 64% of speakers—have to do with the use of the hands. Hand gestures are therefore the factor most likely to affect a speaker’s ability to convey authority.
Unbalanced posture is another common mistake, as it reveals insecurity. This is the second most frequent type of gestural error, found in 58% of public speakers. Many speakers shift their weight to one side in an unconscious attempt to signal that they are in sync with the audience and do not pose a threat.
Both men and women—42% of speakers overall—try to reduce tension by moving around the stage with no apparent purpose. This sort of pacing back and forth is inadvisable, as it bears no relation to the content being delivered verbally. Moving for no clear reason expresses uncertainty and does not help to convey authority.
The most common mistakes—found in 64% of speakers—have to do with the use of the hands. Hand gestures are therefore the factor most likely to affect a speaker’s ability to convey authority.
Classification of common errors by sex
As part of my analysis of speakers’ gestural errors, I classified the most common types of mistakes made by men and women:
- The most significant differences in men have to do with the use of the stage and the abuse of filler words. Forty-six percent of men, compared with 38% of women, make the mistake of pacing around unnecessarily. This could be due to the fact that men are more naturally inclined to occupy space and engage in territorial behavior. Men are also twice as likely to use verbal fillers.
- Women are more likely to hold their arms at their sides in a protective stance that limits their ability to use expressive hand gestures. This notable tendency could hypothetically be explained by women’s lower natural aggressiveness. Similarly, 66% of women lean to one side instead of distributing their weight evenly on both feet.
Interestingly, although men and women make similar amounts of mistakes when speaking in public, the types of mistakes they commit tend to be different. One way to correct and eliminate these behaviors is to spend more time preparing for a presentation, which makes it possible to speak with a lower level of tension.
About the study
– 200 men and 200 women
– Short presentations (30-60 seconds)
– Age range: 25-35 years
- Preparation time: 3-20 minutes
- Simple topics such as hobbies or careers
- Aspects analyzed:
– Eye contact
– Facial expressions
– Hand gestures
– Use of the stage
– Vocal inflection
– Verbal fillers
– Use of the arms
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