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“What do I do with these hands?” Smart Tips for Using Effective Gestures in Your Presentations


by Claudia W. Brogan

Recently, I was helping a woman improve her presentation skills—in particular, hand gestures. Even though it’s good to add hand gestures to speeches, not all gesture-additions are created equal. Over-gesturing can be a problem, as can under-gesturing. Adopting hand motions from other speakers which don’t naturally suit you make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious and will certainly be distracting to your listeners. Then the gestures are self-defeating.

As noted in a recent TED-talk research project, some intriguing techniques were yielded. This observational study at the Science of People researched the most effective speaker habits exhibited during TED Talks. The group created a crowd-sourced Citizen Science project where volunteers carefully studied top speakers and provided feedback about speaking styles. Their colorful summary of key themes and further information about this study are available here.

One compelling detail which emerged is that in the first 7 seconds of your speech, people have already made their first impression and decision about the entire talk. That’s right, 7 seconds. In that amount of time, listeners form an opinion, provide a positive sense of welcome, and show curiosity; so use your opening 7 seconds to assertively fill the speaker space, to smile, to gesture, and to begin.

As I provided speaker-feedback for the presenter who wanted to be comfortable making hand gestures in her presentations, I first asked her to describe distracting or extraneous gestures she had seen other speakers use. We discussed these examples:

  • Putting hands on hips (best used only briefly when a speaker or a speech’s character makes a short declaration about feeling powerful)
  • Placing hands into pockets (which is highly distracting visually, and even more troublesome when jingling coins or keys)
  • Striking the so-called “fig leaf” pose (clasping hands low just beneath the stomach)
  • Crossing one’s arms across the chest (which closes off a speaker)

We agreed that using one’s first finger to point at the audience when speaking is the most inappropriate gesture of all. The gesture of pointing at the audience comes across as feeling superior and is very off-putting regardless of the words being spoken. Rarely should a speaker be sermonizing; it’s much better to describe a desired behavior as something that “we can all improve by doing.” When a speaker is inviting audience members to attempt a new behavior, or is referring to listeners, offering an open hand with the palm facing upward is much more inviting and inclusive.

Next we covered 5 specific tips for her to begin using right away to make them a habit:

  1. Use 1, 2, and 3 fingers when listing tips or summarizing key points.
  2. Show finger and thumb close together to easily demonstrate “a tiny bit” or “things that come really close together in time or space.”
  3. Compare things that are small, medium, and large by using a flat hand low to the ground, raise it halfway, then reach higher to show it tall and towering.
  4. Add rounded-fingers in a zero when, for instance, you might ask “How many people sort their recycling? Zero.”
  5. Include a suitable gesture to illustrate issues or people coming together. To demonstrate fellowship, start with palms facing inward about 12 inches apart and move your hands closer together until they are palm-to-palm.

For gaining and retaining the attention of your audience, polishing your gestures makes for an exciting, enjoyable speech. Practicing in front of a mirror or recording yourself will help give vivid feedback about what feels and looks natural and the frequency of gestures; avoiding quick, nervous movements is important as practice takes place. Each of us could benefit by polishing and improving our gestures to illustrate ideas to help the listeners observe a cohesive, informative and entertaining speech.

None of these tips ought to be added “wholesale,” but selected and practiced with natural delivery. Graceful gestures not only add heft to presentations but also create a connection with audience members. When used with intention and care, effective gestures “bring the speech to life” in memorable ways.

For additional reading on this topic, you might also enjoy this excellent article for ideas and examples.

Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you. Contact Claudia via email at claudiabrogan @ gmail.com, through LinkedIn or by phone at 404-849-5182.