Gestures to use in your presentation—and some to avoid
I don’t know how many times I’ve been coaching leaders on presentation skills and I’m asked, “What do I do with my hands?”
People have an instinct they should be doing something with their hands while they’re talking—but darn if they know what it is!
Studies show that we as humans naturally gesture with our bodies. It adds energy to our conversations and enhances our message. In fact, a 2019 study by Professor Jeop Cornelissen of Eramus University found that “gesturing had a more direct impact [on the audience] than the language [of the presenter].”
That’s what this post is about—strategically choosing effective gestures during a presentation to connect and communicate to your audience more effectively. It’s the second part of our two-part post on the use of gestures. Didn’t catch the earlier post? No problem – here it is!
In this part 2, we’ll introduce specific gestures that can make your presentation (let’s use those) and those that will break your presentations (let’s avoid those). As you explore these suggestions, pay attention to those that you would like to incorporate and practice as well as those you recognize you might be doing unwittingly and want to reduce.
Ready? Let’s go.
Gestures to use for effective communication
Gestures that are helpful are those that promote genuineness, authenticity and engagement. Here are a few positive gestures I recommend:
Let them see your hands—Show your open palms to the audience. This flips a switch in our caveperson brain: You don’t have a weapon. You’re no threat. You are safe. It’s a way to invite your audience into your talk. A great way to show your palms during a presentation is to open with a personal story. Personal stories are full of truth and honesty, so you might find your hand gestures naturally opening up. (You may not even have to consciously think about opening your palms!)
Listing with your fingers—One of the easiest and most basic hand gestures is numerical. ANYTIME you say a number, do the corresponding gesture—this makes your number easier to remember for the listener, adds movement and serves as a nonverbal anchor in the conversation.
Showing levels or sizes—when demonstrating different levels of growth, size or volume, use hand gestures to show small, medium or large (vertically or horizontally). This works well when sharing sales or financial data with your audience so they have a visual representation.
Slap one hand, palm up, into the palm of your own hand when stating a conclusion. It’s a “bottom line” gesture—a way of saying, “Listen up! This is important.” It also helps the audience transition to a new topic.
Pointing to yourself—gently place the fingertips of one hand over your solar plexus.
Spreading out your arms—Use this when you want to emphasize the size or importance of something.
Raise your hand—Whenever you ask a question of your audience, try to spin it in a way to get them to enter in. For example: “Raise your hands if you’ve ever had this happen to you!” You’re prompting them to join in.
Comparing things—Whenever you want to separate or compare two different ideas or things, you can use your hands and body to symbolically represent them in different locations. For example, I might say this is totally different from that by using my left hand (or moving to the left) when I say “this” and my right hand (or moving to the right) when I say “that.” This is a great way to visually put distance between two things and help your audience keep track.
Gestures to avoid
There are entire trainings on the gestures you should avoid. Those of you who may be traveling outside the U.S. should be especially mindful of everyday gestures that are offensive, rude or obscene (and there are many!). However, wherever in the world you may be presenting, here are a few that I hope you will avoid:
Steepled fingers—touching the fingertips of your two hands in front of yourself. This is my #1 pet peeve gesture. It’s a “power pose.” You don’t want it. It’s overused. It radiates arrogance. It’s completely unnatural. Worse, if you are using this and start to turn your wrist and fingers downward, it conveys insecurity.
The “fig leaf”—This is the default gesture people assume when they’re standing in front of a crowd—one hand holds the other down below in front of their body. (Think Adam and Eve and their discretely placed adornments.) The message this conveys is that you feel threatened, frightened or are withholding important information.
Pointing—This should be used with caution. Most people don’t like to be pointed at because it can be seen as accusatory or invasive. However, you can point as a gesture to highlight a person or to literally make a point—just use your entire hand and not just a finger or two.
Crossed arms—This can signal to your audience that you are unenthusiastic about your presentation or information, or that something is incorrect. It’s a defensive posture that will create a distance between you and your audience.
Fidgeting with a prop—It can be your ring, your watch, your pen, the clicker. This can be terribly distracting. It screams “I’m really nervous!” or “I’m not confident in what I’m saying.”
Hands behind your back—Having your hands behind your back can be really distracting to the audience because they start to become suspicious. What is he/she hiding? It gives off closed-off energy and worse, can come across as superior. A variation on a theme here is having your hands clasped behind your head. Not pretty – don’t do it.
Hands-on your hips—Having your hands on your hips can make you seem overbearing.
Gestures matter. They convey confidence and help your audience to engage with your message. Choosing gestures that enhance your presentation and avoiding gestures that detract from your message are important for your success. To quote the Grail Knight in the film, “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade,” when using gestures, let’s be sure to “choose wisely.”
Want more inspiration on gestures? Check out this TED talk by body language trainer Vanessa Van Edwards.
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional Actor/Director and voice-over artist, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.