by Maryfran Johnson

Let Your Hands Do the Talking

Oct 12, 2009

Your gestures, expressions and body language all speak volumes. But are you really listening?

Before you even open your mouth, you’ve spoken volumes.

That’s the reality of our interaction with other people, whether we’re facing a crowded conference hall, an executive boardroom meeting or an audience of one.

Remember Sting’s ’80s-era hit “Every Breath You Take”? That catchy, creepy song about watching “every move you make” could be the theme song for any audience you face. On an instinctive, largely unconscious level, people are reading your gestures and watching your face for clues about what’s going to happen next.

Communications coach Nick Morgan calls this the “second conversation”—the silent communication that pulses outward from our posture, gestures, facial expressions and overall body language while we’re speaking. The primal impact of that second conversation is why making eye contact matters so much, and why you should open your hands outward toward people to inspire their trust.

While most of us know better than to stand in front of any audience with arms crossed defensively over our chests, many executives “are surprisingly oblivious in day-to-day work of what their body language is saying,” says Morgan, author of Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. “Most of my [coaching] work is about creating the discipline to monitor yourself and others in room.”

Spoken words and gestures are inextricably linked, he notes, but it’s only in the past decade of brain research that our understanding changed about how communication happens between human beings. “We actually express things physically before we talk,” Morgan explains. “What the brain research shows is that the two conversations should be reversed. The ‘gesture’ conversation happens first.”

Fran Dramis can believe that.

“I’m an Italian. I have to speak with my hands,” says the extroverted former CIO of Bell South, who’s given talks to audiences as large as 10,000. Now CEO of F. Dramis, a business strategy consultancy in Atlanta, he always abandons the podium to stalk around the stage, making eye contact with several individuals and then returning to them periodically to visually check in. Are they nodding and smiling still? Or losing interest?

“I’ve always believed that if you don’t get a feeling out of an audience, they will remember nothing of your talk. Zero!” Dramis says. “Inspiring that feeling is what enables them to understand your content, to remember what you said.”

So how can you turn this subtle “second conversation” to your advantage? If you don’t have the resources to work with a professional speech coach, try videotaping yourself while rehearsing your talk, Morgan recommends. Connecting with others is all about “posture and nearness,” he adds, so stand up straight, move toward your audience and let your gestures do the talking. They will anyway.

Maryfran Johnson in CIO magazine’s editor in chief. Reach her at

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