Lessons in the Art of the Gesture

When a college freshman, I had never taken a course in public speaking or debate. I decided it was time to correct that missing element of my education. So I enrolled in Speech 101 (or whatever it was called). I don’t know exactly what I expected, but whatever it was, it wasn’t much.

The class was small as was the classroom, probably filled to capacity at about a dozen students. The professor took us all off guard by informing us immediately that we would begin by giving a short extemporaneous speech about–of all things–ourseles.

He was a soft-spoken and gentle soul with a disarming smile. So even the most timid of us were not as fearful as we might have been. Yet there was one young man who was clearly in some distress. I later learned that he was extraordinarily bright, but on this day it was his shyness and naivete that were more important. This farm boy from the wilds of Idaho was in way over his head. And he knew it.

When his turn came, he walked haltingly to the front of the class, and stood behind the lectern, which he then grasped firmly with both hands. As he began speaking he was as stiff as a telephone pole and just as motionless. It was positively painful just to watch.

Afer half a minute or so, the professor mercifully stopped him. He said, “You’re doing pretty well, so far, but I think it would be more effective if you included a few gestures along with your words.”

The lad said that he didn’t know how to gesture. That was understandable, he was told. But it wasn’t really that hard to do. Was he right or left handed? Right, he said.

“Good. So I want you to hold your right hand out, palm up, in front of you.” The young man obliged. “Now start talking.”

The student looked a bit confused as he turned to the teacher, and with a flourish of his right hand, as if conducting an invisible orchestra, he asked, “What do you want me to talk about?” The lesson in gesturing was finished and he received a grade of ‘A’.

There was much more to our lesson that day than met the eye. In fact, there were several valuable lessons that I have never forgotten, and which have served me well in countless situations, some involving speaking or hand gestures, but most not.

  • Lesson #1: You cannot gesture while simultaneously holding onto the lectern with a death grip. You have to let go first.
  • Lesson #2: Once you have let go and have opened yourself up to your own inner spontaneity, all you have to do is start talking, and the gestures just happen of their own accord.
  • Lesson #3: Gesturing, or any form of sponatneity, cannot be taught.
  • Lesson #4: None of us needs lessons in how to gesture. We already know how.
  • Lesson #5: Once you are open, it is far easier to gesture than to not gesture. It’s how we are made.

Translated into more general terms, all we have to do to live our lives spontaneously and harmoniously is to let go of our death grip on structure, and begin to express ourselves freely from that open position. Everything else flows automatically as long as we stay open and honest.

Not bad for Speech 101, eh? 🙂

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