The Splendid Gesture

Imagine Adolf Hitler with his hands cuffed behind his back. Now imagine him, thus cuffed, attempting to address an immense audience at a party rally at Nuremberg.

As satisfying as the first image might be, the second one is even better, especially when considered from a speaker’s point of view. Take away the dictator’s ability to punctuate his speech with his hands and arms and you’re left with a frothing, sputtering caricature flopping around behind the lectern like a beached shark – not exactly the object of blind, hypnotized devotion.

The sort of wild gesticulating that marked the fascist leaders of more than a half century ago has largely disappeared. Intelligent modern speakers know that all that windmilling and shadow boxing makes audiences squirm at best and scares them at worst. Today, it’s seen as bad, inauthentic method acting rather than effective communication.

Once, however, exaggerated gesturing was not just fashionable but necessary. In fact, it was the gold standard for a school of speakers in the Victorian era known as the elocutionists.

“The elocutionists were a group of people in the late 1800s who felt if you did certain things, the audience would always react the same,” said Richard Doetkott, a veteran professor of communications studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. “This meant using certain gestures and certain inflections and postures. They used to have a book of gestures that they could study. It was more effective with the audience of the time but it’s important to understand that they had no sound reinforcement, so in order to enhance the fact that you were portraying something dramatic, such as anger, you would raise your fist. And even though the people may not have been able to understand the words that you were using, they understood that you were angry. The elocutionists had a complete repertoire of all kinds of gestures that they could use. And really, this is all about stagecraft, theatricality, acting. In those days, public speaking was an extension of the stage.”

With the advent of sound amplification in the early 20th century, the need for such dramatic physicality diminished, said Doetkott, and speakers began to adopt a more personal and natural style of relating to their audiences. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s celebrated “fireside chats,” carried via radio, “were not necessarily conversational, but were less florid and theatrical than the public had been used to,” said Doetkott. “We now know, in modern times, that the more authentic you are as you speak, the more effective you are.”

Doetkott teaches just that in his speech classes, which he has been conducting for 42 years at Chapman. His students are not taught about gesturing, eye contact or other overt physical aspects of public speaking. They do not work from notes. They speak to an audience of fellow students who may number from 50 to 150, and the goal is a smooth, unforced conversational style in which any gestures are entirely their own. Doetkott calls this approach “oralistic.”

“Gestures are not effective because of what they are, they’re effective because they have truth behind them and that they belong to the person who’s speaking,” he says. “Public speaking at its most effective is really an extension of conversation, if you have a conversation with the audience.”

This evolution in both approach and technique can be traced by observing some of the more memorable speakers of the modern age:

•  Theodore Roosevelt – The former leader of the Rough Riders was a profoundly physical man who relished what he called “the strenuous life,” and this often found reflection in his speaking gestures. He often favored a forward chopping motion, as if he were wielding a hatchet above his head. During this, his hand would either be clenched in a fist or his index finger would be pointing aggressively. Lest this posture look too belligerent, Roosevelt was always ready to save it with his trademark toothy grin.

•  Winston Churchill – Already a renowned and expert speaker by the time he became prime minister, Churchill in the House of Commons was known for his physical stance when he came to a section of a speech he wanted to strongly emphasize. Taking a wide stance with his feet, he would place his hands on his hips, thumbs forward, and lean forward conspicuously from the waist. This posture, combined with a jutting jaw, was the very picture of aggressive confidence. During the war years, he punctuated his speeches with the two-fingers-up “V for victory” sign, a gesture that became a symbol of hope throughout the world.

Such a posture, for Churchill, was effective and natural because it “came out of his pugnacious nature,” said Doetkott. “Gestures are only effective if they’re true gestures, gestures that the person would adopt normally.” 

                    "When gestures are used as punctuation rather than theater, when they
                come from within rather than without, they carry a subtle power."

•  John F. Kennedy – Neither a natural politician nor a born speaker, Kennedy grew into both roles. During his time as president he had the great advantage of having Theodore Sorensen as his speechwriter. It was Sorensen who said later that Kennedy relished the occasional classical – almost Biblical – flourish in his speeches that Sorensen ably provided. Perhaps the most famous of these, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” at Kennedy’s inauguration was punctuated strongly with a finger-stabbing gesture at the word “not.” He used that gesture whenever he wanted to call attention to the most important lines in a speech. Most of the time, however, Kennedy’s speaking gestures were subtle. For emphasis, he would drum his right hand – but usually only his right – up and down in a gentle hammering motion just above the sloping surface of the lectern, mostly with his index finger either pointed or crooked (President Bill Clinton, who idolized Kennedy, would later adopt this gesture but would make sure it was more visible to his audiences). He was always careful not to actually strike the lectern, which would create a thump that would be amplified by microphones. 

•  Nikita Khrushchev – A coal miner’s son who was as brash and rough as Kennedy was polished, the Soviet premier earned infamy in the speaker’s pantheon when, while speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1960, he removed one of his shoes and began banging it on the lectern in front of him. The gesture earned him the nickname “Hurricane Nikita.” Khrushchev’s speaking style was often crude and bombastic, and the expansive gestures he used reflected this. Photographers were fond of capturing him in a characteristic pose: leaning forward belligerently, mouth agape in fiery exhortation, his right arm raised in the air, his fist clenched.

Even so, the shoe incident and the general bombast were effective to a degree because “that was very much him,” said Doetkott. “I don’t think he said, ‘Today I’m going to do this.’ He was pretty rough trade, and that likely came out of emotion rather than artifice.” 

•  Adolph Hitler – Even Hitler’s gestures, after he had gained power and become chancellor of Germany, grew out of the emotion of the moment and from true inner feelings rather than from a textbook performance, said Doetkott.

“Hitler learned by speaking in bars and beer gardens,” he said. “When people are drinking and you’re in there trying to get their attention, you’re going to adopt certain techniques that are going to be effective or else you’re useless. He actually had a photographer photograph him in various poses in order to study them.” Once Hitler had risen to power and already had any audience’s attention, “it was real emotion that drove the gestures rather than the gestures driving the emotion,” says Doetkott. “The gestures may have been theatrical-looking but there was real emotion driving them.” 

•  Benito Mussolini – The Italian dictator aped many of Hitler’s speaking gestures, taking some of them to even wilder lengths. He would occasionally, as if frenzied, fling his arms every which way, almost as if he were semaphoring his speech. Perhaps his most characteristic pose would come at the climax of a phrase or section of a speech, when he would cross his arms pugnaciously across his barrel chest, jut out his jaw and survey the crowd, nodding his head – as if to say, “Take that!” 

•  Martin Luther King, Jr. – The great American civil rights leader was a Southern clergyman and favored the dramatic cadences, the round pronunciation and the exaggerated highs and lows that are often particular to the Southern clergy. However, in his most famous speeches he was judicious and even economical with his gestures. During his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech to marchers gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in August 1963, he put his words center stage throughout most of the address, keeping his arms at his side and letting the drama of his delivery carry the presentation. It wasn’t until the final ringing words – “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – that he thrust both arms upward and clenched both fists.

The reason? According to Doetkott, King’s speech was scripted “until that last part. When he got into ‘I have a dream,’ he was off script at that point and that’s where the gestures started, because that was who he was. That was his background, where he came from.”

The best modern speakers have drawn lessons from watching people such as these. They have come to realize that the grand gestures of the era of Henry Clay and Benjamin Disraeli seem antique and almost clownish today. They also realize that aggressive gestures – the closed fist, the pointed finger – have the power to either galvanize or frighten. The images of animated tyrants still haunt our memories.

Conversely, today’s great speakers likely have found that when gestures are used as punctuation rather than theater, when they come from within rather than without, they carry a subtle power that can engage an audience and more accurately – and truthfully – make their point.

Patrick Mott is a freelance writer from Fullerton, California.