These gestures will improve your next presentation

Whenever I work with business leaders on their presentation skills, inevitably the question comes up: “What do I do with my hands?”

One reason the question has such prominence is that not knowing what to do can make us feel self-conscious. And if you’re at all worried about what the audience is thinking about you or your hands, then you’re not 100% focused on giving a powerful presentation.

Given how important gestures are to the impact of a presentation, it’s frankly surprising that speaking and presentation coaches so rarely describe -- in a detailed way -- which actual gestures are most effective, i.e., recognizable and support your message. This article aims to bridge this gap.

Start with a strong stance

People tend to go to one extreme or the other when it comes to hand gestures: we may be too “verbose” with our hands or too closed off and stiff. Hand motions need to be congruent with what you’re saying as the physical expression of your verbal message.

Strong and effective gestures start with a tall, erect stance. Make sure your shoulders are back, your chest is lifted (but not “puffed up”), and you keep your feet about shoulder-distance apart (for more about this, see my book "Talk on Water," p. 139). If you’ve ever practiced good posture by walking around with a book balanced on top of your head, you know what I have in mind here.

Once you have your strong stance, simply allow your arms to relax at your sides with your elbows slightly bent and your hands hovering about waist height. You can rest one hand inside of the other as a kind of home base. This is your strike zone -- your arms are relaxed and yet ready to gesture.

Gesture with intention

The main differentiator between gestures that are distracting and those that are effective is that effective gestures are intentional. Think about a time when you were totally distracted by someone’s hands as you watched him present. Do you recall what was distracting about his movements? It’s probably that he kept making the same repetitive motions over and over, which added nothing to what he was saying. This can get tiring to watch (it can become almost like watching a tennis match).

Clearly, these kinds of repetitive movements are more aptly described as a nervous tic than an intentional motion designed to support what is being said. If you think of your presentation as a conversation with the audience, it can help you to feel less nervous and more natural about what to do with your hands. Whether you’re pitching, presenting or keynoting main stage, you want hand gestures to be purposeful, varied and emphasize your message in a natural way.

So what are some effective gestures to use throughout a high-stakes presentation?

There are two types of gestures, both of which can be effective:

1. Conventional gestures

Conventional gestures are more or less universally understood and can be considered almost as generalized sign language. What makes conventional gestures effective during a presentation is that everyone in the audience will understand your intention.

There are six movements that fall under this category:

  1. Pointing: When you point, your audience will turn their attention to whatever you are pointing to. You can point to your slides to draw attention to a particular item in a list saying, “the whole argument hinges on this one data point” or “the boundaries on this map have changed.” You can also point to a product you’re pitching. However, you will want to avoid pointing at the audience or individuals, as this can be interpreted as punitive. You can use an open hand instead (for a good example of how to point without offending your audience, watch this video).
  2. Giving or receiving: When you hold your hands out as if to give or accept a book or maybe a piece of paper, it indicates openness and a willingness to share information. You could use this gesture when you are offering information or asking listeners to consider a new idea. When you hold your hands in this way, your body language says, “this is the information my team has discovered” or “these ideas are valuable for attaining your outcomes” or “I’m appealing to your good will to help me understand this matter.”
  3. Rejecting or stopping: Think about how you would hold your hand if you wanted to say “stop.” You would hold your wrists at a 90-degree angle away from your body, palms pushing away. When you hold your hands in this way while you’re speaking, it indicates rejection. You’re saying to the audience, “this proposal or policy won’t do” or “let’s slow down and think about this for a moment.”
  4. Clenching fists: This one can be a display of resolve, as in, “we must fight this merger to the end.” It can also indicate power or conviction as when someone pounds the podium while giving a speech. But be careful about your tone of voice when using this gesture because it can come off as anger. You can think of clenched fists as physically putting an exclamation point on your words.
  5. Cautioning: You may hear people refer to this gesture as the “dog with dirty paws.” This is similar to rejecting, only you may make slower movements with your palms facing away or pushing downwards. You can think about the kind of movement you would make to calm a friend if she were feeling upset. This gesture conveys the advice, “don’t take this one so seriously” or “let’s approach this calmly.”
  6. Dividing: When you hold your hand vertically out to one side of your body and then do the same motion on the other side with the opposite hand, you suggest the idea of two diametrically opposed points. For example, you might say, “we can neither be too risk averse [right hand] nor overly confident [left hand] in our projections for the market next quarter.” I also often connect this gesture with conveying the idea of "pro vs. con" or "theory and practice."

2. Descriptive gestures

Descriptive gestures are, just as the name suggests, literally physical descriptions. What makes this type of gesture effective is that it helps the audience create a vision that corresponds to your words. Here are some examples of descriptive gestures and when to use them:

  • Small, medium, large: You can use this one to literally show different levels when doing a pricing comparison, for instance. You could say, “we offer the premium package at the highest level with all the bells and whistles,” then “we have a basic package, which is good for companies that aren’t ready for a huge transformation,” but “our top-seller is this package right in the middle.”
  • Growth: Whenever you move your hand or gesture in an upward motion, it indicates growth or increase. You can use this gesture to literally show the direction sales or job growth is headed. Or picture the “hockey stick chart” used to demonstrate rapid growth. You can make this shape with your hands to show, rather than tell, how your work will benefit stakeholders.
  • Itty-bitty: If you are making a small point or talking about a problem, challenge or issue that could arise, you can show it’s small by making the “itty-bitty” gesture. You can emphasize that this is not something your audience should take too seriously by holding your index finger and thumb close together. Making this gesture while you’re talking can actually reduce anxiety in your audience.

Do's and don'ts

Let’s end with a quick list of do’s and don’ts:

  • Do make your gestures spontaneous, plentiful, filled with vitality, variety and coordination.
  • Don’t do anything that could be interpreted as defensive (e.g., putting your hands in “fig-leaf” position, in your pockets, behind your back, or folding your arms in front of your chest or even across your body for extended periods of time).
  • Don’t point at individuals, including co-presenters or audience members.
  • Do mark your script with cues to add intentional gestures where appropriate, instead of hoping you will remember.
  • Do pay attention to the meanings of gestures across cultures, especially if you’re presenting to a global audience.
  • Do remember to keep your hand gestures congruent to what you are saying.

Using gestures effectively is an important part of presenting with power. Above all, be sure to practice your pitch or presentation with intentional hand gestures included, so that they feel natural and you can focus on being present with the audience when all eyes are on you.

With these practical tips in mind, you’ll be on your way to expertly enhancing your words with physical expressiveness

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Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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