Suit The Action To The Word, The Word To The Action: The Power of Gestures in the Virtual World
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about being a voice actor was one of the very first.
In my final year of drama school we began training for The Carleton Hobbes Bursary Award – an annual competition held between UK drama students, the winners of which receive a 5 month contract with the BBC Radio Drama Company.
Audio drama was something I deeply loved and I’d been looking forward to the training for months.
One of our first tasks was to deliver a short monologue. I approached the mic, stood stock still and gave it my best.
“Thanks Mark,” came the response from the tutor. “Just one thing. Why didn’t you move?”
I was a little taken aback by the question. “I wasn’t sure if I should,” I replied.
He asked me to try the monologue again – this time with gestures – and afterwards played the two versions back to me. The difference was palpable. The version with the gestures was much more engaging, my performance much more congruent with the script.
“If you gesture, the audience will hear it,” the tutor told me.
It’s a lesson that’s stayed with me ever since and to date I’ve appeared in well over 150 audio dramas for the BBC.
Congruency between our words, voices and body language is vital in making our message clear. Gesturing, when it’s used effectively, is a key part of that. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of online platforms such as Zoom and Webex in corporate communication has become the new normal, particularly from a home setting. The clean lines of the corporate meeting room have been replaced by whatever suitable space can be found in the home – for me it’s my son’s nursery. Meetings are much less formal, camera angles are variable and participants are distractible. It’s a new world where the rules of engagement have been rewritten and holding the audience’s attention can be much more challenging.
Another effect of the move online is the demise of the gesture. In a recent webinar one of my clients questioned why it’s necessary to gesture on a web call. After all, when your webcam gives you roughly the same headspace as a passport photo, nobody is going to see you moving your hands.
There can be an assumption that gestures are there to support the spoken word and nothing more. Yet research has shown that people are just as likely to use gestures on the phone when they are unable be seen, so this can’t be the whole story.
On a recent trip to the supermarket I overheard a woman in a car having an extremely animated phone call, arms whirling about her head as if conducting an invisible orchestra. Clearly her gestures weren’t being utilised as visual aids, but they were having an effect upon her voice.
In May 2020, Wim Pouw of the University of Connecticut published a study* in which he recorded the effects of different arm gestures on the voice.
He found that the muscular tension involved in gesturing travelled through the body, affecting the pressure in the lungs and therefore the pitch and volume of the voice. Not only that, but when the recordings were played to a selection of listeners, they weren’t just able to hear the difference in the voice, but were also able to identify which gestures were being made.
According to Pouw “When you hear a voice, you literally hear aspects of a person’s entire body.”
Our bodies and voices are part of the same package. As I learned at drama school, the fact that we’re not visible doesn’t mean gesturing isn’t necessary. On the contrary, when our audience is unable to see us, their focus on how we speak becomes even more acute, so gesturing becomes all the more important.
In a virtual meeting there are many reasons you might not be seen clearly: your video feed may be one of many in gallery view; slow internet speed may result in you having to turn off your webcam to free up bandwidth; poor lighting in the room could lead to your video appearing pixelated… The list goes on.
In these situations, it’s important to remember that people can hear your gestures and will be guided by them. They play a key role in powering your voice, making it more dynamic and engaging for your audience.
To use an analogy, the body is the engine behind the voice and gestures are the foot on the gas pedal. The extent to which you rev that engine will affect your vocal performance.
If you take your foot off the gas completely, you may find your message never gets out of first gear.