Soapbox: Pointing the Finger

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soapboxIn Chris Davidsons’s tele-seminar on Successful Speaking Secrets the other week, one of the participants noted as a bad habit of some presenters the mannerism of pointing at the audience. The participant felt that it made them feel like they were being told off. From the speaker’s perspective, the gesture is intended for emphasis; they probably experience it as pointing at an idea that they find important, but the listener experiences it as being pointed at themselves.

(Incidentally, Chris gave a tip as to how to exploit the pointed-finger-for-emphasis without being rude to your audience: point your finger downwards into the palm of your other hand. As he described the gesture, I realised I’d seen him do that while presenting, and yes, it is quite effective.)

I found myself recalling this conversation during the quartet contest at the Sweet Adelines Region 31 convention last weekend. There’s a goodly amount of repertoire that casts the singers in characters with attitude, either telling an imaginary interlocutor what’s what (‘You Gotta See Mama Every Night’, ‘Whos’s Sorry Now?’), telling a narrative about another person with a strong personality (‘Hard-Hearted Hannah’, ‘Lulu’s Back in Town’), or just making a statement in a very musically-positive way (‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’). All of these emphatic statements tempted quartets into pointing liberally at the audience.

Now, if it’s rude when a speaker points at their listeners, it’s likewise off-putting when a quartet does it. Actually, it’s four times as off-putting if they’re all doing it at once. As a listener, you don’t take it quite so personally when they’re addressing a fictional Other, though it still looks pretty aggressive. You start to feel a bit of sympathy for the no-good cheating guy if he’s always on the receiving end of all that pointing. And if they’re addressing the universe in general, it’s like they’re having a go at you yourself. ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’ changes in meaning from the general, ‘One is insignificant unless one is in a meaningful relationship’ to ‘You there, sad loser, you’re not just lonely, you’re a nobody’.

So my plea to anybody singing with emphasis is this:

  1. Avoid pointing wherever possible, as it makes you look rude and cranky, which is less entertaining for an audience member than being big-hearted and charismatic
  2. If you must point, point at something other than the people you’re singing to

Thank you in anticipation.

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