Hand Gesturing 101

Hand gestures are an important, albeit underutilized tool in extemp. In this article, Ananth Veluvali discusses how you can work on creating effective hand gestures.

If your extemp speech is a wonderfully-prepared dish, hand gestures are like salt. They bring everything together while adding a nice flair of delivery. And just like salt, you need the perfect balance of gestures: not too little, but not too much. Below are a few strategies and ideas to mull over as you consider how you can add hand gestures to your speech.

1. Where to Gesture: Creating the “Box”

The first question you should be asking when exploring hand gestures is where should I gesture?

While you can sometimes break this rule, my advice would be to gesture within the confines of an imaginary “box” that extends from the top of your chest to right above your waist (see below for a visual representation).

This ensures that your gestures aren’t too high or low. Keeping your gestures in this area is especially important for online tournaments because this area is often most visible to your judge.

Try to gesture in this blue box. You might want to occasionally break this rule (rarely, though) if you’re emphasizing the grand nature of something. The rightmost image is a good example of what not to do.

2. When to Gesture: Rhythm, Imagery, Contrasting Ideas

Now that you know where to gesture, the next question worth asking is when should you gesture? Too often, extempers—particularly those with a debate background—overdo their hand gestures. While it’s a far less common problem, some extempers also under-gesture.

A basic test you can use to determine when to gesture is to ask yourself what do I gain with this gesture? Below are a three examples of times you might gain something with a gesture.

  1. With visual pieces of imagery. Good gestures add extra emphasis to these important and colorful parts of the speech.
  2. With rhythm. Good gestures are also commonly paired with rhythmic parts of speech, particularly for quick 5-10 word sentences where you’d like to slow down and really enunciate each word for rhetorical effect.
  3. With contrasting ideas. By placing your hands on the opposite sides of your body, you can more easily draw a contrast between two opposing ideas.

But you should also think about times when you shouldn’t gesture. For example, don’t gesture when introducing a source!

3. Drills with Gestures

There aren’t too many drills you can do with hand gestures, so I’d start by recommending you give practice speeches where you place particular attention on your gestures. Record yourself during these speeches and re-watch the videos. Are your gestures purposeful and fluid, or do they feel forced and unnatural? Focus on when you’re gesturing, how often you’re gesturing, and where you’re gesturing. You should also make sure you don’t over-gesture with one hand while neglecting the other.

Beyond that, your next best bet is to take some heavy objects (textbooks or ACT/SAT practice books tend to do the trick), and place one in each hand. Then, give a speech with these objects in your hands. Since the heavy nature of these objects will force you to put extra effort into raising your hands and gesturing, you’ll have to think more carefully about where and when you gesture.

Concluding Thoughts:

Gestures are one of the trickiest parts of extemp to master. Keep at it, though, and remember that with time, your gestures will become second-nature to you. Best of luck, and let us know if you’d like a video (so we can add some visual representations) of these gestures!

By Ananth Veluvali

Founder, the Extemper's Bible.

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