Why rehearsed gestures so often fall flat

Are you rehearsing the authenticity out of your presentations? Dr Nick Morgan, a preeminent communications coach and occasional contributor to this blog, thinks it’s possible. 

Nick tells the story of Carol, VP of sales, tasked with inspiring a sales team to strive for a really challenging new target.

Carol walks to the podium with great energy and confidence. She begins with an engaging story from her days as a sales rep. She smoothly segues to a rosy forecast of the company’s future sales outlook. She’s animated, punctuating her remarks with gestures that she had rehearsed several times with her closest colleagues. But, says Nick, something is wrong.

“Carol senses that something is amiss. The audience isn’t exhibiting the kind of enthusiasm  needed to get the year off to a great start. She begins to panic. What’s happening?

“We all know a Carol. We’ve all heard speeches like hers, presentations in which the speaker is apparently doing all the right things, yet something – something we can’t identify – is wrong.”

What is wrong? The audience perception might be that the presentation is calculated, insincere… that it’s being ‘phoned in’. 

The audience can see the wheels turning in her head as she goes through the motions.”

Preparation is important, says Nick Morgan. “But the traditional approach – careful rehearsal like Carol’s – often doesn’t work either. That’s because it usually involves specific coaching on non-verbal elements – ‘maintain eye contact’, ‘spread your arms’, ‘walk out from behind the podium’ – that can ultimately make the speaker seem artificial. The audience can see the wheels turning in her head as she goes through the motions.”

The answer, says Dr Morgan, lies in research into the ways our brains perceive and process communications. It turns out that the non-verbal ‘conversation’ between two people, or between a speaker and audience, begins before a word is spoken.

“You might say that words are after-the-fact explanations of why we just gestured as we did,” Dr Morgan writes in the Harvard Business Review.

The explanation, he suggests, lies in something as simple as a hug. The impulse to embrace someone begins before the thought that you are glad to see someone, and certainly before any formal verbal expression of greeting. “Reinforcement, contradiction and commentary arise first in gesture. We nod vigorously, shake our heads, roll our eyes, all of which express our reactions more immediately – and more powerfully – than words can.”

And that, suggests Dr Morgan, explains a lot about why overly-rehearsed or overly-mannered speakers like Carol struggle to get buy-in from audiences.

“If gesture precedes conscious thought and thought precedes words – even if by no more than a tiny fraction of a second – that changes our thinking about speech preparation. 

“When coached in the traditional way, rehearsing specific gestures one by one, speakers end up employing those gestures at the same time that – or even slightly after – they speak the associated words. Although audiences are not consciously aware of this unnatural sequence their innate ability to read body language leads them to feel that something’s wrong – that the speaker is inauthentic.”

So how should we prepare for that important speech or presentation. 

Focus on four keys things:

  1. Be open to the audience; in other words don’t be afraid to reveal your real self to your listeners. Stop trying to be the sage on stage; instead, strive for the sort of openness you would want with a close friend. Strive for a real connection with the audience – draw them in, rather than speaking AT them
  2. Connect deeply with your content. The deeper you are within your content, the more natural you will appear
  3. Be passionate – and not afraid to let your real enthusiasm show. Release your enthusiasm and your gestures will automatically reflect your feelings
  4. Understand the fears and concerns of the audience. What’s top of their minds as they listen to you? If you really tune in to the audience, you will pick up on their worries. Their body language will tell you when they are with you and when you need to work harder to get them onside

Dr Nick Morgan is the founder of Public Words, a communications coaching firm. He is the author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing your Personal Impact (HBR Press, 2014)