7 Gestures Preachers Should Avoid

Since I started coaching preachers nine years ago I have been finding ways to describe to preachers what we see in the seats. Over and over again a few patterns crop up in all kinds of preachers: young, old, big church, small church, women, men, gifted, and not quite as gifted preachers. Since I have seen them emerge across the spectrum of preachers, I imagine one of them just might plague you too.

preacher_box1. Locked Gesture Box

Draw a stick figure on a piece of paper. Then draw a dark line from the edge of one shoulder to the next. Draw a dark line directly across the waist of the imaginary figure. Now connect the shoulder lines with the waist lines. The dark lines form the gesture box. Human beings are very self conscious creatures. As a result, when we speak in front of others our gestures are diminutive, limited, constrained, and often forced. We think too much about what others must be thinking. The tendency when anxiety hits is to constrict gestures and to keep your arms closely over your torso. It’s a protective maneuver. It’s as if the gesture box is a jar and your hands are flees hitting the walls and lid. It’s hard to break out of the gesture box especially for less-than-confident ministers.

2. Follow the Bouncing Ball

Many preachers feel it is their job to communicate passion through their speaking. Since gestures are intuitively understood as emphasis markers, overly passionate speakers over gesture. Remember the bouncing ball on kid’s reading movies? Our gestures start to look like that, bouncing on every word. It can be quite distracting, even humorous for listeners. More importantly, since they do not know what the preacher intends to emphasize they pick their own.

3. Impact Sprinkler

The impact sprinkler is a rhythmically rotating, but stationary sprinkler that moves by the force of water in an arc. It hits the stopper on one side and rotates back to the other. Some preachers look like that sprinkler rhythmically, predictably, and steadily rotating from one side of the room to the next. Their torso faces one group, then the next, then the next, then the next, then works it’s way back. Some people are more like the old type writers and quickly return to the first position, but most are like sprinklers. It subconsciously undercuts a sense of authenticity, gives the air of a performance, and undermines the perception of speaker authority and confidence. Randomizing which section to focus on, varying the angle of presentation, and moving the zero-position for the feet from time to time in purposeful ways eliminates this issue.

4. Mixed Signals

Pounding the pulpit, flexing the muscles, furrowing the brow, then pointing the finger, the preacher shouts “God loves you!” Or, with milquetoast mild manners the preacher speaks yawningly of the hope and joy we can have with the fullness of the spirit. Christian life is unpredictable, the preacher claims, dynamic and exhilarating…all without moving an arm more than an inch, or an eyebrow a millimeter. Or the preacher paces like a lion from one side of the platform to the other, slightly crouched, frantically gesticulating on “be still and know that I am God.” When our non-verbals mix the signals our verbals are attempting to send, it’s no wonder our people “don’t get it” or fail to recognize our point.

Your gestures are speaking so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.

5. Dopple Ganger

A dopple ganger is a parallel person in another universe, or another place with great similarity. If you put this gesture pattern on fast forward it starts to look like conducting a choir. Two arms in relatively symmetrical or parallel patterns. Lock step they travel, completely synced they stop. They move right, they swerve left, all the while attached by invisible strings of sameness. The speaker begins to look stiff, formal, rehearsed, even formulaic. I remember a well known speaker in my young adult years had this problem. His arms were so consistently together, he would even place both hands on his backside at the same time in a very comical way. They went everywhere together, even places you wished they would not go.

6. Touching the Face

One hand to the check with an elbow resting on the other arm (half thinker pose). Wiping the brow (evangelist move). Tugging the ear (apologetic pause). Rubbing the nose (uncertain of gold dust). Pinching the chin between thumb and finger (calculated consideration). Rubbing the cheek (not sure how to say this). The real translation of all of these gestures is, “I feel uncomfortable and touching my face gives me comfort.”

7. If I Had a Hammer

The closed fist like a piston rises and falls. That’s the classic hammer gesture of course. The arm is the handle, the fist the head. Every phrase or key point is the nail. But I use this phrase to describe any gesture that happens so much so, that you begin to think the gesture tool box has only one tool: call it a hammer. So every need for emphasis looks like a nail. If you are this preacher, and you had a hammer, you would hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, all over this land. You would hammer the same way with almost every mood, almost every sermon, almost every time.

What’s your Gesture to Avoid? Don’t know? Here are some quick and easy ways to find out:

  1. Ask someone who watches you preach often and tells he truth without fear. Just be sure you are ready to hear what they have to say. Maybe wait until Wednesday. It’s far enough from Sunday so that you recovered, and far enough from Sunday that you can recover again.
  2. Watch yourself on fast forward. DVD’s make this more difficult than the old VHS model but 2x speed can still  be somewhat helpful. Even better, get an old recorder and do it the VHS way or the mini-cam way. Then watch it on smooth fast forward to catch your repetitive gestures.
  3. Preach with a mirror. I mean it. Preach in front of a mirror at a time when no one can see you. Don’t look at the mirror for a while, then glance at it to see your gestures. How’s your stance? What’s repeated? What is incongruent?
  4. Remember this formula: Congruent (match the idea), Asymmetrical (no arm mirroring) , Unique gestures (non-repetitive). Congruent, asymmetrical, and unique. 

 – By David B. Ward, © 2015

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