"Whatever you do, don't use your hands when you speak."
Many female clients in my consulting practice have told me that other, uh, advisors, of the male variety, imparted this conventional "wisdom." Why? Because "gestures will make you look aggressive or unprofessional!" Huh?
These enlightened told the women to leave their arms at their sides, or, worse, to clasp their hands in front. If you don't believe this, ask around. Probably three quarters of women executives will say they received "instruction" of this sort.
So why is it OK for men to gesture, and not women? Why would a guy look like a proverbial stiff with his hands linked in front, while a woman would seem more professional in that pose? Hard to imagine this in 2014, isn't it?
The only rule of body language is to be yourself. Actually, I take that back. You need to be the most effective, boldest self you can be -- all within the confines of your personality.
If gestures don't come naturally -- that is, if your body language is "quiet" -- then by all means don't move your hands when you speak. Otherwise you'll be chopping the air for no apparent reason, like a dime-store imitation of an opera singer.
On the other hand (no pun intended), if you ordinarily gesticulate with gusto and suddenly stop, people will think you're flatlining.
What about podiums? Many female clients have told me that they were instructed (usually early in their careers, by male managers) to firmly grip the sides of the podium. Can you imagine Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton clutching the wood to appear more authoritative? Doesn't their gravitas emanate from who they are and what they say rather than from their ability to become a monolith with a column of walnut? Remember: Podiums are nothing more than barriers. So walk away and reveal yourself to the audience. We can't read your body language if we can't see your body.
May I point out, however, that there are gender differences with regard to nonverbal communication. I offer this list of poor habits that women often display when speaking:
• Folding your arms across your torso, as if caressing yourself. This will make you look uncertain, lonely or self-centered.
• Touching your face with your hands. This is a defensive pose, especially if you reach across to the opposite cheek.
• Failing to complete a handshake. As a general rule, extend your hand until you lock thumbs with the other person. If you don't reach far enough, then the palms won't meld, and you'll seem tentative.
• Sitting on your jacket (à la Broadcast News). This position will remove slack in the material and square your shoulders, but it is one of the worst things you can do. How can you move freely if your clothing is taut across your back? (This caveat applies equally to men.)
• Sitting up straight. This works in the military, but not in real life, unless you are fortune enough to possess the sort of posture that ballet dancers enjoy. I have observed that former dancers can walk into a room ramrod-straight, maintain that vertical line as they sit down, and accomplish the maneuver with consummate ease. The rest of us will look ridiculously formal if we try to imitate them. (My daughter spent many years as a ballerina, so my eyes are trained in this regard.)
Audiences are much smarter than you think. They can quickly determine whether you're at ease, even if you think you're fooling them. If you try too hard to project a certain persona, then you are interposing that role between yourself and the rest of us. Don't act; just be.
Studies have shown that women are naturally more fluent in body language than men. For instance, they are said to be more accurate and more sensitive in labeling facial expressions. This advantage manifests itself across many cultures and has been shown to begin as early as age 3. Another study shows that women are more accurate than men 80 percent of the time in nonverbal sensitivity overall -- better at analyzing not just facial expressions but body and voice cues. Moreover, they have more gray matter in the sections of the limbic system involved in emotional processing.
My own experience confirms that women are more adept at not only receiving nonverbal messages but transmitting them as well. Both of these skills provide an essential edge in business. So why should they hold back?
Women should not rein in but "rein out." When it comes to gesturing, they win the arms race, uh, hands down. And consultants who don't celebrate this should never be invited back to your company again.