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

What to Do with Your Hands When Speaking

So what should you be doing with your hands when speaking? The basic idea is to let your hands do some of the talking. Great speakers use hand gestures more than average. Gestures add meaning, they reflect complex thinking, and they give listeners confidence in the speaker.

If you watch people such as Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair, you will immediately begin to notice that they punctuate nearly every sentence with a hand gesture. You are probably saying, yes, but they’re politicians; what about for the rest of us? Watch writer Elizabeth Gilbert and scientist Jill Bolte Taylor and you'll see that they use frequent gestures too; it’s important in any kind of public speaking--and really, in any kind of communication in general.  

How to Use Gestures in Speeches

It’s important to incorporate gestures into all of your presentations. The added visual cues help emphasize and clarify your points. Gestures can be used to illustrate the size or shape of something, they can show direction or position, or they can reinforce statistics. You can enumerate important points by using your fingers to count. To add gestures, think about your action verbs and then how you might demonstrate them. For example, if you say “lift,” then lift your hands to show the lifting. 

Carefully choose when and what you want to gesture. The best time to use a specific gesture is when you are making an important point. So pick a few movements that feel natural and weave them in, but don’t go overboard or you’ll appear phony.

Practice Your Gestures

It’s critically important to practice so you appear natural, spontaneous, and relaxed. But be careful to not be overly practiced or you’ll appear robotic. You’ll also want to make sure the movements fit in with your personality. If you are outgoing and enthusiastic by nature, you might want your gestures to be bigger and more frequent. If you are painfully shy and reserved, it probably would suit you best to use smaller and more controlled movements.

However, you also need to keep in mind the size of the room and the line of sight. In general, the bigger the room and the more obstructed the views, the bigger and higher the gestures need to be.

Quick and dirty tip: Oh and don’t forget the most effective and contagious gesture of all: Your smile. According to Rick Wilson, a Rice professor of political science who did a study on smiling, "People who have friendly expressions are rated better or perceived to be nicer." Don’t forget to smile at your audience; it helps them to relax. Don't succumb to the old stereotype of business professionals portrayed as serious and unsmiling. Take a deep breath, relax and smile. Your natural, genuine smile will convey confidence and warmth, not silliness. Of course, one caveat: If you are delivering very bad news, like layoffs, smiling is not such a good idea.  

This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.

Your homework for this week is to practice gesturing more than you normally do in regular conversations. For one week, try to consistently and thoughtfully incorporate specific gestures that add meaning to your conversations. Then review the last presentation you made (or the last important conversation you had) and think about what gestures you could have used to create a strong and lasting impression. Finally, video record yourself incorporating your additions and you’ll see first hand how much gestures can enhance your communication.

If you haven’t already joined my Facebook Page or started following me on Twitter, you should hang your head in shame. No just kiddin’.

As always, I also invite you to join my newsletter or my professional network on LinkedIn (and Twitter).

If you have a question send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

Presentation image courtesy of Shutterstock


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.