Today I continue my journey through Hamlet’s oral advocacy primer. Quite wisely, he urges performers to avoid distracting gesticulation:
Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Sure, a person at the podium must be passionate. But often lawyers in the midst of arguing are seized by what I call the “dancing hand” syndrome, which is analogous to what Hamlet means by “sawing the air.” These advocates’ sense of urgency and nervous energy are telegraphed through hands that seem to have a mind of their own and make the same gesture over and over again. This kind of tick pulls focus, distracting the bench from an argument’s substance. Some common hand-sawing gestures I have observed are:
· A chopping motion with one hand;
· Finger pointing at one’s notes or, worse, at the bench;
· A double-handed conductor’s motion;
· Fist pumping or pounding; and
· The profoundly distracting pen taping against the podium’s edge.
The opposite problem is the white-knuckled death-grip on the sides of the podium. That strategy can serve as a short-term cure for the dancing-hands problem. But a better solution is to watch yourself on videotape or in a mirror, catch yourself in the act such that you become conscious of your involuntary gestures, and then make strategic choices about when to use precise gestures to emphasize a point, thereby giving your presentation tempered animation.
As with good actors, lawyers in the midst of an argument never want a gesture to seem choreographed. But, ironically, the best way for a gesture to seem natural is for it to be choreographed. The choreography, however, has to be so well rehearsed that the artifice disappears.
By holding a “mirror up to nature,” we can observe just how unnatural some of our instinctive hand motions are. [Hamlet, III.2] Seeming natural, by contrast, starts with heightened self-consciousness.