Gestures for Storytelling

Ritu Verma 018

Ritu Verma of the Pandvani tradition
Madhya Pradesh

What do you tell your audience without words? What does your body tell your audience without your permission? Your physical presence communicates your intentions both consciously and unconsciously. Have you taken charge of your gestures or do they have a mind of their own?

Storytelling is a subtle art, and subtle, fleeting movements can be sufficient to express whole images. We tend to think of gestures as movements of hands and arms, but shifts in posture or direction of gaze express and emphasize our intentions too.

We use two main kinds of gesture: natural and illustrative. Natural gestures emerge instinctively from a desire to simply express yourself or emphasize something. Illustrative ones are for visually demonstrating an action.

If you have ever been trained in theatre you may be aware of all your gestures and even use them with skill. But the dramatic gestural language of theatre is more designed for the large stage full of movement, and so without careful retraining can lead to a somewhat distracting level of gestures that overwhelm the potential depth your storytelling. Big theatrical gestures or facial expressions tend to turn your storytelling more into visual theatre or pantomime, which draws attention towards outward appearances and away from inner meaning. That can be a storytelling style choice, though, for young children, simple or comic stories.

Conscious or Unconscious?

If you’re not trained in gesture you may be unconscious of most of the body language and movement that you make, so they will express inner states that you may not mean to – especially nervousness! We all have habitual tics that we make under stress, and they can be both highly visible and annoying to audiences, yet so invisible to ourselves that we don’t know there’s anything to address. It’s well worth asking a visually sensitive friend to give you honest critical feedback on your tics – no one else will! – so that you can learn to overcome any undesired ones.

If you want to make your visual movements and gestures effective, a key factor is to be aware of their appropriate size. If your audience is close to you they will easily pick up on tiny nuances, and get distracted by lots of medium-sized movements. If you are on a big theatre stage at some distance from them, your whole body may look a little lost in all the space, so your gestures will look very modest even if they involve huge movement, and small ones may be lost.

Stagecraft is unfortunately something few storytellers learn, but every movement on a stage or in a performance space will have its effect and apparent meaning. The older traditions of storytelling have adapted to this, each in their own way. Some traditions encourage little movement at all. The sit-down comedy of Japanese Rakugo has a whole language of sophisticated and subtle movements designed to evoke imagery with minimal movement. The Pandvani storytellers of central India (see the photo above) often perform to a whole village of thousands, with no amplification, and use a simple language of a few clear, powerful gestures to convey the dramatic moments in the story. In India too there is a whole language of the mudra – elegant ritual gestures, mainly of the hands, which have such precise meanings that classical dancers can tell their stories with no words.

Take Charge

If you want to take charge of your movements, here are a few simple tips:

Firstly, many storytellers are too unsure or self-conscious to allow their movements to be free. This can make you look as if you have your elbows tied to your waist, as your hands try to move but the tension in your shoulders holds them back. The key is to ensure that all your intentions follow through. If you fling your arm towards an imagined distant city, it says something very different and odd if your hand stops before pulling your whole arm straight. Allow the initial impulse to carry right through, and hold still for a moment at the end – these give clarity. If you are in too intimate a space to reach right out, at least don’t let tension be what limits your gesture.

If you want to experiment very simply, you can think of many gestures of falling into two types: outward from your body, or inward to it. Giving or pushing away, and receiving or drawing in. Out from your chest suggests heartfelt benevolence; in towards your belly suggests hunger or greed, and so on. But remember, you don’t need to get so theatrical as to overwhelm your storytelling.

However there’s a better and more natural way to make suitably small, subtle gestures that express your story imagery and intentions. It’s something that many storytellers do unconsciously, and a little refinement can make it very powerful. The key is to embody your story, or a character. This is not like an acting style, but just being immersed in your visual imagination while you are narrating. With no deliberate action or movements, your body still makes subtle changes in a natural, integrated way, providing you don’t hold it back by tension or self-consciousness. These small visual cues that you are living your story can shift the audience into a vivid entrancement. Trust it. Use your imagination and your gestures may be inside more than outside, but they will show.

Indeed internal gesture can be the most potent. I coach my storytelling clients in a powerful technique that looks like magic, an invisible system of transforming the atmosphere and moment. I love it when even a whole room of tellers give literally no visible movements or words yet can instantly snap the atmosphere powerfully from precise mood to mood in unison.

What movements do you make in live storytelling that are consciously or unconsciously communicating to the audience? Have you ever worked on them? Tell me in a comment…


  1. Sandra says:

    Gestures! I’m a certified mediator. The study of one’s own body language is critical to helping others tell THEIR story. The audience in this case is two parties of one or more people. If I wrinkle my forehead or bite my lip during mediation, those involved may shut down or perceive a gesture as taking the others’ side. Great article. A2Z

    • Tim says:

      Great point, Sandra. We are constantly reading others’ subtle gestures because we want to know what’s really going on inside them, and we know that their deliberate words and movements are rarely the whole story. I talked about how the storyteller needs to respond to the audience’s desire to know the real, authentic intentions and feelings of others in my first post on this blog, The Authentic Secret to Storytelling Success. Thanks for pointing out that trust is even more critical in mediation – everyone’s an audience! Do you also actively use any gestures or body language in mediation, or is it all about removing them?

  2. Sonia Lal says:

    I do the embodiment thing, but I could always focus more on it.

  3. Hi Tim,
    I like the idea of inside gestures, and I think I’m practising it already, together with a modest outside movements. I also prefer to sit on a stool while telling; it encourages rest and ‘indside’ at the same time.

  4. John Hamilton says:

    Hi Tim,
    At an early stage in my storytelling I had the a valuable opportunity to observe a deaf performer story signing. Using gesture so precisely that it is actually a language.
    This really made me think about gesture.
    A couple of points I learned –
    Clearly any gesture which has no meaning will be confusing, like throwing random words into a sentence.
    Thinking about placement is vital. If you describe a person or an object you can, by gesture, place them in a particular spot on your stage. By a simple look or gesture to that spot brings them back into the story. They cannot appear from anywhere else.
    I urge people to take any chance to watch a story signer.

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