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How to Use Hand Gestures During A Speech

No one is born a skilled speaker, and not everyone born is meant to be good at public speaking. The skills that forge talented speakers are learned, like hand positions and gestures.

What does this mean for you? It means that everyone has the chance to develop these qualities within themselves.

Using nonverbal communication in speech is widely underestimated, even though often it is the key to a successful presentation. For example, you might focus on someone’s hands for a second and not even realize what they are saying. While this sounds like a complex achievement, it isn’t.

Let’s dive into how you can use hand gestures to develop your own public speaking skills and why they’re so important. Stick around until the end to learn a couple of key hand gestures around the world.

The Power of Hand Gestures

Did you know that children who use hand gestures at 18 months are far more likely to develop stronger language abilities as they grow? This growth is ideal because the right hand gestures can command the attention of your audience. Hand gestures show direction, approval, disapproval, emotion, and attitude.

All of these forms of body language make for exceptional speeches.

Likewise, some of the most highly rated TED talks from the last few years had almost twice as many hand motions as their lower-rated counterparts. This goes to show that expressive moments have a considerably stronger impact on the audience than we would first have assumed.

Why Hand Gestures Are Important

We were all born to speak with our hands, not just because it’s a convenient way to express an emotion, but because hand gestures make people listen. We can’t help it. Gesturing and other non-verbal cues are an implicit part of body language, to which our brains are hard-wired to pay attention.

These cues have been the key to our survival for thousands of years. Think of the role hand gestures played in hunting and gathering. How else were we going to tell the difference between predator and prey?

In a speech, these body language-centric gestures are referred to as non-referential gestures. Referential gestures may include showing the shape of a physical object or using your hands to show how much snow or rain there was.

Non-referential gestures can even help you speak more fluently, concisely, and eloquently. Though we’re all different, and gestures may not come naturally to us all, there’s no denying their power.

In fact, hands can say a lot about you as a person.

What Hand Gestures Say About You

Most individuals use their hands to “speak” at least occasionally. Some people communicate more effectively by gesturing or conversing with their hands. Others use ASL or American Sign Language to express their thoughts into visual words. Meanwhile, some barely use their hands at all.

People who “talk” with their hands are often seen as more energetic, agreeable, and warm. Those who are less animated are potentially more analytical and logical. Meanwhile, over-the-top gesturing may come across as disingenuous or even insincere.

There is certainly a fine line between being too subdued and too exuberant. As a public speaker, you need to learn to walk that line with confidence. Gesturing in the right way will inherently make it easier for you to connect with your audience.

Connecting With Your Audience

When trying to support a spoken part of your presentation, one major challenge is deciding which gestures to employ. Should you have your palms facing toward your body? Fingers spread open or held together? Hands facing up or down?

If you find yourself struggling with hand gestures, it’s good to remember to present yourself naturally. This means possibly avoiding extremely descriptive body language.

Another important note is that if you’re focusing too much, you risk forgetting what you’re attempting to communicate. This is why practice is so important, especially if your aim is to speak at a TED Talk.

Practice in a mirror until it feels natural and you’re less likely to lose the plot when you’re giving a presentation.

Emotional Cues

The employment of these natural non-verbal cues can also evoke a significant amount of audience emotion and interest. A speaker’s body language can effectively emphasize and clarify their remarks while also showing their sincerity and zeal. This all comes into play if you want to keep your audience connected and engaged.

When combined with the power of projection, you’ll have people hanging on your every word in no time. How you speak, combined with hand gestures, come together to form an overall stage presence.

If this is something you’d like to master, follow these tips:

  • Maintain casual eye contact
  • Control mannerisms and nervous expressions
  • Take action with verbs
  • Avoid insincere gestures
  • Move around on the stage as topics change

Hand Positions To Avoid

Note that even with the most useful rules, there are times and situations where it is okay to break them. If you need to demonstrate a particular point or idea, for example, it’s okay to bend the rules.

That being said, these are the things you want to AVOID doing with your hands and body when giving a speech.

Idle Hands

generic man icon with idle hands

Imagine listening to someone talk for an hour and they did nothing but move their lips as they spoke. That would certainly be strange, if not downright unsettling.

We know your audience will understand you better if you use your hands, but consider the fact that hand gestures can make you more personable and casual. You want people to connect with you. So, if you’re keeping your hands still or loose at your sides, people will view you as a less compelling and charismatic speaker.

Hands in Pockets

man with hands in pocket icon

We’re referring largely to putting BOTH hands in pockets. There’s something to be said for occasionally sticking a hand in your pocket. It looks good and it can give you a boost in confidence. However, having both hands in your pockets can make you come across as standoffish and intimidating.

If you’re finding people think you’re intimidating, try keeping one hand out of your pockets and see what happens. You’ll come across as more self-assured and personable, and it could have a profound effect on your business and personal life.

This may not work for everyone, especially if you don’t already have a commanding presence. If that’s the case, simply avoid reaching into your pockets altogether.

Crossed Arms

man with crossed arms icon

As a speaker, you need to be conscious of how your non-verbal cues impact your audience. Speaking with an open body makes you more approachable, while speaking with a closed body makes you less so. You don’t want people to feel like you’re shutting them out.

So even if you’re pondering something or waiting for another speaker, try to keep your arms loose at your sides. If you notice you’re doing this a lot, simply drop your hands down and let your arms hang naturally at your side. Or, better yet, place a (single) hand in your pocket.

Fake Gestures

man missing hand icon

If you’re using gestures, but they don’t have any intentionality with what you’re saying, we call that a fake gesture. You might be flailing your arms all over the place, but if it doesn’t correlate to the words you’re saying and the stories you’re telling, your just moving with nervous energy.

Use your arms and hands with intention.

Offensive Hand Gestures Around the World

We’ve listed several hand positions that make your speech stale and less engaging, but there are also offensive gestures that you should be aware of prior to speaking at an engagement.

While the western world and parts of Europe often have much in common, the two vary quite significantly when it comes to hand gestures. What can be perceived as good luck in one country could mean something else in other places.

Here’s a chart of the most common global hand gestures and their differences throughout the world.

Common Hand Gestures and What They Mean Around The World

Common Global Hand Gestures and What They Mean Around The World

Key Hand Positions to Learn

While it can be tempting to consider what you can portray with your right hand vs. left hand, you don’t need to think about a distinct hand movement for every single sentence or word in your speech. Rather, understanding the core emotions you want to convey is going to help you the most. This is especially true if you want to talk give a TED Talk.

There are a few key hand positions that lend themselves well to this. Let’s look at what they are.

Steepling vs. Wringing

cartoon image of Steve Jobs steepling hand gesture

Steve Jobs frequently steepled his hands during speeches to project an air of assurance and experience. He would place his fingertips together on both hands, spread them out, and then arch them.

Steepling is different from wringing, which is when someone clasps and twists their hands together. This can suggest uneasiness, discomfort, and fear. So, if you have a habit of wringing your hands together when you’re thinking, consider steepling them instead.

This is ideal for when you’re in between thoughts, as the innate action actually draws your viewer’s eyes to your face and head. Plus, it’s a simple one to do. Simply place your fingers together and stretch them outwards slightly.

You can do this whether you’re sitting or standing up, just be sure to not overdo it.

Open Palms

Whether you have your hands in front of you angled slightly outward or extended away from your body, a palms-up approach can signal that you are sincere and honest. This will also help your audience feel welcomed and more at ease.

A secondary but controversial benefit of hands up is that extending your palms out can make someone feel more accommodating and compliant.

Compliance can be a great thing if you’re trying to sell something. However, you want to make sure you understand the time and place to use this gesture.

To avoid pointing at people, it’s important that you understand other gestures you can use instead. Pointing can come across as dominating. So, instead, try having your first two fingers curled as if making the “okay” sign.

Politicians Point or the “Okay” Sign

cartoon of Martin Luther King Jr. pointing finger during speech

You could also opt for the “politician’s point,” which is done by resting the thumb on top of a closed fist. This is still an assertive gesture, but it is also commonly known now and can still come across as overly dominant when done in the wrong setting.

Using either the “okay” gesture or the politician’s point helps you come across as more focused, thoughtful, and even more goal-orientated, which is far less likely to put off your audience.

Side Palms

Side palms can be an ideal gesture when you’re trying to make an emphatic point. Simply extend your hand out in a handshake gesture. Your audience will feel as though you are physically reaching out to them, and this will encourage them to do the same.

You will have their complete focus, making it much simpler to persuade or communicate with them.

Other Simple Movements

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different hand gestures you could use to communicate more effectively, and we simply don’t have time to cover them all. However, we hope you can use what we’ve shown you already to come across as more personable and sincere.

In case you want to learn a few more hand movements that increase audience engagement, here are a few more suggestions. They’re simple, and you likely already do many of them. Just consider emphasizing them in your natural patterns of movement.

Coaching for a Professional Speech

While it can certainly feel intimidating to learn a whole style of presentation delivery, the process can (and should) be fun, engaging, and interesting. Hand positions are just a small part of becoming a successful public speaker, and knowing yourself, your goals, and your industry are just as important.

If you’re on the path to paid speaking gigs or want to land your first TED Talk, then get in touch today. We specialize in public speaking and coaching, and we’re ready to help you shine.

Free Public Speaker Training, hosted by TEDx speaker Taylor Conroy, click here to save your free spot


Joelle Cullimore
Marketing Content Manager

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