Hand Gestures

by Speaking Tips | December 15, 2003

Experts tell us body language accounts for between 55% and 65% of our communication. Just what is body language? It is carriage, facial expressions, eye contact and gestures. All go into establishing your presence and making a connection with the audience. Gestures can be made with your hands, arms, shoulder, torso, legs, feet or a combination of these but hand gestures are probably the most common.

When you are preparing a speech, what proportion of time and effort do you give to the movement and cadence of your hands? If you are like most people, the answer is not much. Yet appropriate use of your hands canb result in a marked increase in the understanding and retention of your message. Correctly used, hand gestures can help you say more in less time, show what you mean without having to resort to visuals, signal your conviction and confidence and add texture and dimension to your material and ideas.

Avoid holding your notes in your hands since this effectively immobilizes them. If you are nervous about your about your presentation, stands with your hands relaxed at your sides. Stage fright closes down normal muscle coordination. Avoid making the audience nervous with gestures that reveal anxiety such as gripping the lectern, clenching your hands together, clutching an object, fiddling with clothing or accessories or touching a body part (pulling ear, wiping brow, rubbing chin).

Once you have learned to relax in front of an audience, hand gestures can be used to emphasize the stucture of your presentation. This represents the best use of hand gestures and you should avoid using gestures as decorations. Begin by using your hands to illustrate your enthusiasm for being there. You can accentuate your point of view with a solid, intentional gesture and emphasize main points with deliberate gestures. Use your hands to indicate a new topic or transition with a forward or open gesture. Finally, signal the ending with a gesture indicating closure or departure.

You can also use hand gestures to enhance your presentation by using them to respond to audience input with affirmative or encompassing gestures. Introduce humor by contradiction between your gestures and your words. Where appropriate look for opportunites to use your hands to express emotion or attitude, emphasize importance, demonstrate relationship or contrast, show shape, direction or location and signal recognition, acceptance, departure, or approval.

Hand Gesture Caveats

Lastly, here are several common "gotchas" that you should be aware of.

  • Don't forget to add hand gesture notations to your speech notes
  • Avoid using the same hand gesture over and over in a pumping action
  • Don't animate or mime your entire speech
  • Refrain from copying others, the best gestures are unique to you
  • New gestures feel as strange to your body. Practice them until they are comfortable
  • One-handed gestures are often more effective than both hands mirroring each other
  • Avoid finger and fist gestures that may be insulting to other cultures
  • Gestures are a physical activity, you can not learn to do them by reading
  • Use a mirror to verify that your gestures reinforce your message

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