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What do I do with my hands during a presentation?—Part One

Next time you’re out for a cup of coffee with some pals, or even engaging on a virtual call, try a little experiment. Tuck your hands under your thighs on the seat or stool. Now just talk, like you normally do. Describe your day, your plans for the weekend, your work projects —without using your hands or any part of your body.

It’s maddeningly difficult. All but impossible. Try it. Most of us want so badly to use our hands and our body language to get your points across.

No way around it. Humans talk with their hands. We use body language. Gestures add flair, energy, and character. Naturally. How big was the fish? It was THIS big!

In my work as an executive coach and presentation skills trainer, I find that most people are unaware of the value of gestures when communicating. We take it for granted or we just don’t use them well. But gestures are powerful. Knowing how and when to use your hands and body to illustrate your message during a presentation is a skill you can learn…and a skill that will help you lead and communicate more effectively.

That’s what this post is about: Grasping the importance of effective gestures and identifying your own personal style. I’ll also give you some tips on how to practice them yet look natural. (This is Part One on gesturing during your presentations so if this is helpful, be on the lookout for Part Two, when we’ll dive in even deeper.)

Ready? Let’s go!

Identifying your personal gesturing style

If you want to make an impact with your audience, you need to make effective use of gestures.

Interestingly enough, a study conducted about TED Talks found that the least watched sessions used an average of 272 hand gestures during the standard 18-minute presentation. The top-ranked TED talks, however, had an average of 465 hand gestures during the same length of time.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that all you need to do to be successful as a speaker is gesture a lot, let me clarify something: it’s not the number of gestures that makes the difference, it’s how to use gestures deliberately and strategically.

Out with friends, many of us gesticulate with abandon. But when it comes time to give a presentation—with your boss and all your peers watching—so many people go for extremes: Too much gesturing—a constant flurry of hand motions—or too little gesturing, your knuckles whitening as you grip the sides of the lectern. (Or somewhere in the middle: the presenter has obviously been coached to use a certain gesture—taking off his/her glasses and giving the audience a meaningful look, perhaps—and uses it again and again.)

Because gesturing can be influenced by our culture as well as our personality, they can tend to be invisible to us. Uncovering your own gesturing style can require a bit of detective work. Here are some suggestions:

  • Ask those who know you well if they notice any particular gestures that you use when you’re talking.

  • Next time you’re out for coffee with a friend—or perhaps at a backyard barbecue socializing with neighbors—be aware of what gestures you use and when you use them. When you have a free moment, take some notes. Then consider those notes alone later.

  • Record yourself giving a presentation. As you review it, pay attention to how you use your body language. Do you think you gesture too much or too little?

  • Any time you watch a speaker in person or on video, watch them carefully. Which of his/her gestures are effective? Which do you think you could adopt—make your own? Add these insights to your notes.

  • Finally, remember you don’t have to limit your gestures to your arms and hands. Use your face, eyes, arms, hands, shoulders, and torso.

Done strategically, gestures can add a layer of meaning and expression, showing your commitment to getting the message across and making it easier for your audience to follow along.

When you select the gestures you’ve gleaned from your personal life and identified effective gestures from others, you’ll have a large palette to choose from for your presentation and you’ll feel more confident using them.

Practice, practice, practice

Now that you are becoming aware of your gesturing style (and perhaps identified some gestures you’d like to incorporate into your presentations), it’s time to practice them so they look natural and spontaneous. While this sounds a bit oxy-moronic, it is definitely possible.

As I said, we want the gestures you use in your presentation to appear organic—as if done without thought. The truth, though, is that you should think a lot about what gestures to use. Every gesture should be done on purpose for a purpose.

Practice makes perfect. Unless you are naturally talented at something or get extremely lucky, odds are the only way to “sharpen your sword,” so to speak, is through repetition. Now, I’m not going to lie to you. It takes dedication to be a disciplined practitioner of anything. However, if you can sit down, focus, and try your best, you will see clear results.

I recommend to my clients that they write in the gestures they want to remember to use directly into their notes. Use whatever code you want. (Interestingly enough, neuroscience has shown that body movements can actually trigger memory so you are more likely to remember your speech if you incorporate specific gestures.)

Practice gestures in the mirror. Record yourself. Critique what you see. That said, be careful. If you practice too much you can look like you’re acting—as if you’re practicing to try and emulate someone. “I want to present like Tony Robbins!” for example. The most important point is to be authentically YOU with your gestures and honor your unique communication style. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate someone else.

With gestures, you need to be yourself and see yourself. Your best bet is to record yourself or grab a colleague or friend and have them critique how you’re “coming across.” Do you look natural? Are you using too many gestures? Too few? (Also, they can watch out for those nervous movements you do unthinkingly and repetitively that can be distracting -- jingling the change in your pocket or fidgeting, for example.)

A final comment about practicing gestures—remember to pause periodically. Let your hands and arms rest. Creating moments between gestures will help to maintain the audience’s attention and make your presentation more dynamic.

(I have to note here that everyone who signs up for NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations leadership workshop will receive a complimentary one-on-one coaching session with me.)

Wrapping up

I don’t know how many times executives I’ve been training ask me, “what do I do with my hands?” Their instincts are telling them that they need to include their gestures to really get across their message. And their instincts are right! We can become better presenters if we learn to leverage our gestures. All it takes is a little awareness and a little practice. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll explore specific gestures to use and what to avoid.

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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 professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and skills to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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