Gesture: Authenticity and Consistency in the Age of President Trump

As President Trump, as he is now called, took centre stage on Friday 20th January I watched his inauguration speech I was struck again by his hand gestures. Earlier in the campaign Trump’s hands were the subject of attack from his opponents but like so much with this Teflon-coated politician, the bad stuff doesn’t seem to stick. Things that reduce other candidates to rubble, Trump somehow survives.

His hands were a sensitive subject though and he pushed back quite vociferously. So it was during his first act as Commander-in-Chief that I was drawn back to this earlier subject of criticism. However, I am not interested in the size of his hands as his detractors were, I am interested in how he uses them.

A lot of time has been given to the analysis of hand gestures. Largely I believe, because we see through them when we feel they are being used to manipulate us. They were a key player as we entered the age of spin.
Bill Clinton was one of the first proponents of the gently closed fist while using the thumb over the top for emphasis during a speech. David Cameron has more recently used the same gesture during his tenure as Prime Minister. Tony Blair, a strong orator, most regularly used an open palm with fingers close together in a sort of gentle chopping motion to emphasis his points. Blair too used the closed fist with the pointing thumb as it’s often seen as the less confrontational choice than pointing a finger.

Gestures as “Spin”

The problem with the politicians above and their gestural choices was just that: they were choices and we could see them being made. It became phoney and even suspect because we could see the machinery at work. We don’t like to feel manipulated (although in the world of “alternative facts” I’m not sure even this is true anymore).

What then is Trump’s approach to gestures during public speaking?  I think something quite fascinating is taking place, as Trump’s hands in the hands of any other politician would see him pulled apart: his hands are small, for sure, but in that he is not unique and body shaming is body shaming no matter who is the subject. More interesting is that he has a remarkably small repertoire gestures to draw from. There is the almost dainty coming together of his forefinger and thumb with his other digits extended; there is the forefinger pointing straight up to the skies; and there is the open-palmed open-fingered generalised waft that tends to circle backward. Trump punctuated almost every point he made during his sixteen-minute speech with one of these gestures and yet, despite not too compelling a delivery and sense that he was certainly reading words someone else had a strong hand in scripting, his gestures and his rhetoric were connected.

We know Trump doesn’t play by the rules. What is true of other politicians is not true of him. It is this that makes these gestures, which on paper should prompt everyone to question and doubt him, somehow complete the Donald package. All these are physical choices that are weak, imprecise and overused. In my coaching not one would make it into a final presentation. I only once saw a gesture during his speech (a Blairite chop) that I would characterise as a strong, positive physical choice. All his movements were light and almost delicate; completely at odds with his uncompromising rhetoric. But with Trump the sheer amateurism of his delivery, the complete disregard for doing as others do somehow makes it work – at least for his supporters: people feel like they are getting, as his Twitter handle implies, the real Donald Trump. This is where authenticity becomes a bit of a cloudy issue. During the campaign Trump was regularly criticised for pandering to his audiences, only telling them what they wanted to hear. This would appear to be inauthentic as once elected some of those early promises became less of a certainty (building a wall, jailing Hillary Clinton, draining the swamp) – but the style continued. The manner in which he delivers his messages, hands and all, has remained the same.
Perhaps this is the biggest and clearest example we’ve had of the power of delivering a message in your own authentic style.

Trump, Authenticity and Consistency

Successful leaders need to be consistent. Trump, although perhaps flip-flopping on some policy issues, has been entirely that. The bombastic rhetoric delivered in his own way means that people feel they are getting the same thing, even if the details of the message changes.
There is a lesson for us all here. Be consistent. Even if your style is to be inconsistent in your content, make sure people know what they are getting, hands and all. Whether you like him or not, Trump does this better than most. He has made bold promises, things that other politicians would not be trusted to deliver, and yet his faithful believe he will. Perhaps in the final analysis more than being authentic, Trump will be seen to have been consistently inconsistent.

Time will tell how well the new US President manages to keep up this impervious front, especially in the eyes of his supporters. I suspect that over time, as the inevitable cracks in his ability to deliver on his promises begin to appear, we’ll see more scrutiny of the things that tend to dog other politicians. It may be then, that the very thing that makes him so appealing now, seemingly not to care how he is perceived, will reveal him to be less than the sum of his parts. His style will be called into question along with his policies and he may struggle to maintain the real Donald Trump persona. And when that happens, his hands, along with everything else, may well be back under the spotlight again.