The Art of Public Speaking HTML version
THE TRUTH ABOUT GESTURE
When Whitefield acted an old blind man advancing by slow steps toward the edge of the precipice, Lord
Chesterfield started up and cried: "Good God, he is gone!"
--NATHAN SHEPPARD, Before an Audience.
Gesture is really a simple matter that requires observation and common sense rather than a book of rules.
Gesture is an outward expression of an inward condition. It is merely an effect--the effect of a mental or an
emotional impulse struggling for expression through physical avenues.
You must not, however, begin at the wrong end: if you are troubled by your gestures, or a lack of gestures,
attend to the cause, not the effect. It will not in the least help matters to tack on to your delivery a few
mechanical movements. If the tree in your front yard is not growing to suit you, fertilize and water the soil and
let the tree have sunshine. Obviously it will not help your tree to nail on a few branches. If your cistern is dry,
wait until it rains; or bore a well. Why plunge a pump into a dry hole?
The speaker whose thoughts and emotions are welling within him like a mountain spring will not have much
trouble to make gestures; it will be merely a question of properly directing them. If his enthusiasm for his
subject is not such as to give him a natural impulse for dramatic action, it will avail nothing to furnish him
with a long list of rules. He may tack on some movements, but they will look like the wilted branches nailed
to a tree to simulate life. Gestures must be born, not built. A wooden horse may amuse the children, but it
takes a live one to go somewhere.
It is not only impossible to lay down definite rules on this subject, but it would be silly to try, for everything
depends on the speech, the occasion, the personality and feelings of the speaker, and the attitude of the
audience. It is easy enough to forecast the result of multiplying seven by six, but it is impossible to tell any
man what kind of gestures he will be impelled to use when he wishes to show his earnestness. We may tell
him that many speakers close the hand, with the exception of the forefinger, and pointing that finger straight at
the audience pour out their thoughts like a volley; or that others stamp one foot for emphasis; or that Mr.
Bryan often slaps his hands together for great force, holding one palm upward in an easy manner; or that
Gladstone would sometimes make a rush at the clerk's table in Parliament and smite it with his hand so
forcefully that D'israeli once brought down the house by grimly congratulating himself that such a barrier
stood between himself and "the honorable gentleman."
All these things, and a bookful more, may we tell the speaker, but we cannot know whether he can use these
gestures or not, any more than we can decide whether he could wear Mr. Bryan's clothes. The best that can be
done on this subject is to offer a few practical suggestions, and let personal good taste decide as to where
effective dramatic action ends and extravagant motion begins.
Any Gesture That Merely Calls Attention to Itself Is Bad
The purpose of a gesture is to carry your thought and feeling into the minds and hearts of your hearers; this it
does by emphasizing your message, by interpreting it, by expressing it in action, by striking its tone in either a
physically descriptive, a suggestive, or a typical gesture--and let it be remembered all the time that gesture
includes all physical movement, from facial expression and the tossing of the head to the expressive
movements of hand and foot. A shifting of the pose may be a most effective gesture.
What is true of gesture is true of all life. If the people on the street turn around and watch your walk, your
walk is more important than you are--change it. If the attention of your audience is called to your gestures,