Every time I watch a Declamation round, I am reminded that hand gestures are fascinating. They can be extremely powerful, and many times they convey more than words can express – consider the scenes in the movie "Mr. Holland’s Opus" with American Sign Language. Even everyday usage of gestures combined with speech is meaningful; a wave hello is very different from a wave goodbye. And the meanings even vary by region – did you know that giving someone a thumbs-up in some countries is a major insult? That said, Declamation is an event that focuses on qualities that are basic elements of giving a speech, including volume, clarity, posture, confidence, memorization, adherence to author’s intent, and of course, quality and interpretation of hand gestures. This post isn’t exactly a guide, more of a list of observations. Here are some moves I’ve seen in Declamation (I’ve given them easy-to-remember names for your convenience. No need to thank me).
The Fist: Make a fist with one hand (or both hands) and hold your arm (or arms) in front of you while you speak. This is a good hand gesture to use when you’re making a passionate point or talking about something that deals with strength, power, or a serious subject you really want your audience to take home. Try not to overuse this gesture, though, or you will come across like a boxer.
The Bill Clinton: Make a fist with one hand, but keep one thumb raised, like you’re giving someone a thumbs-up. Keep your elbow close to your side, but extend your forearm out in front of you. Move your arm forward slightly when you are emphasizing a point, and allow your other arm to rest at your side.
The Hustle: Though rarely seen in competition, this is what happens when a declamation speaker moves both hands around each other in a circle, as if doing the hustle. Both hands are usually relaxed. This happens often when explaining something that’s taking a long time to get to the point. Better solution: take some time to cut the unnecessary explanation out of your piece.
The Barbie And Ken: Keep both of your elbows close to your sides, but extend both forearms out in front of you with your palms facing slightly upward, like you are welcoming someone or offering a hug. Both hands should be very stiff. Keep your thumb separated from your other fingers, but keep your fingers close, like they are attached. Think of a Barbie doll…or a lobster. So, this one could be called The Barbie And Ken And Lobster, I guess…
The Robot: Similar to The Barbie And Ken And Lobster, this involves keeping the hands stiff, but only uses one arm. For The Robot, allow both hands to hang at your sides. Then, raise one hand abruptly, keeping your elbow at your side. Repeat this mechanical motion throughout your piece, never deviating from your programming.
The Chef: This is a variation on The Robot in which you gesture only with one hand, keeping your fingers stiff – but for this one, make a chopping motion, like your hand is a knife and you are chopping a head of lettuce in half. This is for emphasizing a point.
The Stop And Think About This: Usually used for the crux/climax of the piece, this is when you take both hands and put them in front of you, with your fingers pointing toward the ceiling and with both palms facing away from you. This indicates you have reached a point in your piece where your audience is absolutely required to pay attention.
The Pointer: With both hands, gesture while pointing with both of your index fingers.
The Gun Show: Make a fist with your hand, then extend only your thumb and index finger, making a “gun” out of your hand. This is usually done with both hands while pointing at an audience member to express that you are speaking to them directly.
The Non-Gesture: This is what happens when a competitor does not gesture during a speech, keeping both hands at his or her sides throughout the recitation. I will offer up one piece of advice in this post: Don’t do this; it is very boring to watch and I’d be willing to bet the original speech-giver at least or something. Never underestimate the power of your hands; they can be used to emphasize a point, to show that you’ve want someone to stop and think, to show that are raising the roof, or to express that you come in peace. Use them well.