How to Use and Incorporate Gestures

How to use and incorporate body language to reflect complex thinking.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #85

Without saying a word your body conveys a tremendous amount of information. Your posture, your eyes, your tone of voice, and your gestures directly impact perceptions. In fact you may have heard a very commonly quoted statistic from a study by Albert Mehrabian that suggests that 55% of message impact comes from body language (38% from tone of voice and only 7% from words).

What Does Body Language Tell Us?

Let me take a second to clarify that bit of misinformation. Though it’s true that body language and gestures are important, that’s not exactly what his study found. Mehrabian was trying to determine what we relied on most when our words are in conflict with our body messages. For example, when you ask your significant other, “Hey did you do that thing I asked you to do?” and they widen their eyes and then say, “Oh, yea, yea, I, took care of it.” You know immediately they really didn’t. We instinctively perceive what’s true from the tone of voice and body language—and not from the actual words. That’s what his study was talking about. 

Why Gestures Are Important

So, although that often quoted statistic is technically incorrect, it doesn’t mean that body language and gestures aren’t a very important part of communication. In fact, the use of gestures is universal. And interestingly, language and gestures light up the same areas of the brain. When you use gestures, it’s like you are saying something twice: once with your body and once with your words. Additionally, facial expressions can readily demonstrate emotions like love, joy, pain, sorrow, disgust, and delight.

What Do Gestures Mean?

People in all cultures use gestures spontaneously when speaking.

When gestures support the message, they enhance your communication; however, when they don’t, gestures are just distracting.

At the same time, if you don’t use any gestures at all, you’ll appear stiff and uncomfortable. Or if you can’t put your hands down, you’ll seem scattered and silly. I think that’s why so many people ask me, “Lisa, what am I supposed to do with my hands?”

What Shouldn’t You Do with Your Hands When Speaking?

Let me first talk about what you shouldn’t do. When people get nervous they sometimes clasp their hands in front of their genitals—I call that the “Adam” pose. Other people clasp their hands behind their back. I call that the “the military at ease” pose. Some people like to cross and fold their arms on their chest, that’s the “defensive” pose. Some people, particularly men, like to put their hands in their pockets. (I have this habit, so now I buy pants with no pockets for presentations!) You should avoid doing all of the above.

Also, don’t fidget. Women often have a tendency to play with their hair or touch their faces, glasses, or jewelry. Some people unknowingly play with the laser pointer or the remote control. Be careful not to repeat the same gesture over and over again. Oh, and don’t grip the lectern like it’s a life preserver. Again, all of these are gestures you shouldn’t be making! Why? Because it’s distracting.

And perhaps more importantly, these gestures negatively affect your delivery, which can significantly reduce the credibility of an otherwise content rich presentation. (By the way, to see what I’m talking about in action, look in the TED.com archives of the presentation by Jared Diamond on “Why Societies Collapse” and you’ll see what I mean.)


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.