If you’re a public speaker—thus in the business of emphasizing ideas—gestures can reinforce your most important points. You gesture during a presentation for the same reason you highlight a line in a manuscript: to stress something that stands out.
But not all gestures are effective. Some add no value, while others can convey the wrong impression. As a public-speaking coach, I’ve seen people use gestures effectively … and not so effectively. Here are five tips to help your gestures work for you whether you're sitting behind a computer screen or standing in front of an audience.
1 Keep your hands down.
Standing with your hands at your sides—i.e., not gesturing—feels awkward for most speakers. This is because when we speak aloud, our hands typically operate in reverse gravity. They rise unconsciously, stay up, and keep moving, which feels comfortable because nervous energy loves motion.
But keeping your hands down—not all the time, but as a default position—is critical, because a gesture has little value if it’s constant. Gesturing has the strongest impact when the “up” motion follows a “down” position because there’s a dramatic visual difference between “hands down” and “hands up.”
Keeping your hands at your sides for most of your presentation conveys confidence and control, and will prevent you from making aimless, random gestures, which can be distracting. When my students and clients bring their hands down between gestures—something I remind them to do frequently—it injects new energy, purpose, and impact into those motions.
A client once said she gestures frequently “to keep the audience awake.” But gestures are used to emphasize, not entertain. If keeping your audience engaged is a challenge, gesturing is not the best tool to fix it.
If you want to see a great practitioner of the hands-up, hands-down technique, watch Dananjaya Hettiarachchi’s winning speech in the 2014 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking®.
2 Visualize making a point.
It’s beneficial to imagine your gestures as literally carrying your point. Here’s a way to visualize that concept:
- Your point is dense—like a heavy shoebox—requiring two hands, not just one.
- Your point is thick, so your hands need to be open, not closed.
- If your hands are upside down, you’re dropping your point.
- If you clench your hands, you’re squashing your point.
- If you drop your hands to your sides after a gesture, you’ve dropped your point again. Lower your arms with the same energy and intention you used when you raised them.
- Always “offer the shoebox.” Stretch your hands outward toward the audience when delivering your most valuable points—indeed, your gift—to your audience.
3 Commit to your gestures.
The impact of a gesture, just like the impact of your speech, relies on how strongly you commit to it. Too often, I see minor gestures where the speakers attach their wrists and elbows to their waists or torsos and leave their hands to do all the hard work. This may feel more comfortable, but these quarter- or half-measures produce a fraction of the impact.
Commit to active gesturing by utilizing your full arms and your hands in a fluid motion. This creates gestures that are powerful, arresting, and likely to significantly boost the impact of your key ideas.
4 Keep your hands apart.
Clenching, pressing, or otherwise touching your hands together in front of you can make you seem closed off, because you’re physically obstructing the path to and from yourself. Conversely, keeping your hands open and separated creates a visual impression that you’re open to giving and receiving. Even counting on your fingers (“first,” “second,” “third”) has little functional purpose except to give your hands another distracting opportunity to channel nervous energy. Your hands are like your eyes—keep them open to allow information to pass through.
5 Avoid pointing and counting.
Finger gestures are not as impactful as the two-handed “offering a shoebox” gesture. Fingers are smaller and can also carry unintended meaning. Pointing, for example, can seem scolding, while a thumbs-up gesture can seem condescending or smug.
I’ve also seen speakers make these gestures directly in front of their faces, which hinders vital eye contact with the audience. Beware of blocking your face, especially when speaking to a camera for an online speech. Keep your fingers in place and focus your attention on your arms and hands instead. Use your gestures strategically and you’ll add greater impact and energy to your speech.
Watch the video below for additional tips on how to move with purpose.
Joel Schwartzberg is the senior director of strategic and executive communications for a major national nonprofit in New York City, a presentations coach and author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter.