Gestures and body language have long been powerful public-speaking tools. In the 19th century, rhetoricians created gesture manuals, codifying the connotations of poses including “defiance,” “ridicule,” and “penitence.” (Pictured above is an illustration of how to make a declaration from an 1899 edition of the White House Hand-book of Oratory.) Back then, speakers would learn each gesture and pose appropriately when they spoke, with the idea that the audience would understand the subtext.
These days, most speakers don’t put quite as much thought into body language. But their gestures still speak volumes. With that in mind, we asked Jay Heinrichs, an expert on oratorical history and the author of Thank You for Arguing, to analyze the body language of some contemporary figures.
The Regular Joe
This informal, “regular guy” pose sends the message that musician Bruce Springsteen is “a pal and not really a, you know, god,” Heinrichs says. “If you’re not a deity, go light on the informality, because it can lower you in the audience’s eyes,” he says.
Vice President Joe Biden is known for his direct speaking style. This show-all-the-teeth, crinkly-eyed expression conveys Biden’s “love-you’re-here attitude,” Heinrichs says. “Crow’s feet strongly recommended,” he adds.
Anthony Weiner, shown here at a July press conference, is making an encompassing gesture, indicating that he’s telling the whole truth. “Of course, we’re speaking rhetoricalIy here,” Heinrichs says. By holding her arms in front of her body, Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is signaling self-protection and vulnerability.
Beyoncé Knowles’s “female celeb pose” exudes poise and confidence, but it’s not for everyone. “This takes practice and is really hard to do unless you’re X-ray skinny, female, and beautiful,” Heinrichs warns.
The Quiet Genius
During presentations, the Apple founder often looked down and strolled across the stage as if the audience weren’t there. Heinrichs refers to this as the “genius gesture.” “It’s as if you’re composing amazing thoughts in your solitary, genius way,” he says.
The Power Player
Soon-to-be-ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is using a power stance that puts focus on the hips, hinting at sexual prowess. “The gesture implies turbocharging,” Heinrichs says. “But it can give the impression of trying too hard: ‘These Windows tiles are gonna rock and roll, people!’ ”