How to Use Hand Gestures to Be an Engaging Speaker

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Public speaking can be a daunting task for anyone, but it is also an excellent way to promote yourself and advance your career, if you are good at it.

There’s lots of ways you can prepare, to ensure that you know exactly what you’ll be saying and how you’ll say it, as well as coming up with techniques to calm your nerves. But in amongst the things you need to think again, don’t forget your hands.

In a study by behavioral researcher Vanessa Van Edwards, the use of hand gestures in TED Talks was analyzed and she found that the most popular ones had speakers who made an average of 465 hand gestures.

 At the other end of the scale, the research found that the least popular ones had only 272 hand gestures. This demonstrates how much more engaging speakers are when they use their hands to emphasize and illustrate what they are saying.

A study at the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University found that gestures make people pay more attention to what is being said, with Spencer Kelly, associate professor of Psychology saying: “Gestures are not merely add-ons to language – they may actually be a fundamental part of it.”

Another study found that children who knew how to use hand gestures while explaining who to solve maths problems actually helped them learn problem-solving strategies, so it will help you think on your feet while talking.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to go up on stage waving your arms like you’re guiding an airplane on a runway.

Effective hand gestures need to be controlled and natural, and they need to fit in with what you’re saying, enhancing the most important points and carrying your audience along with you.

If you need some suggestions on how to use hand gestures, Pound Place has come up with these animated guides to seven of the most essential hand gestures:

How to Use Hand Gestures [Infographic]

How to Use Hand Gestures [Infographic]

1. Assertiveness

When you want to demonstrate that you fully believe in what you are saying and should be listened to, the temptation might be to jab your finger, but that can come across as too aggressive.

According to anthropologist David Givens, both humans and animals – even lizards – use this gesture to demonstrate assertiveness, and it’s much less likely to be misinterpreted. It’s one that might need practice to get it right, so that you don’t look like a puppeteer without any puppets, but this is a hand gesture that can be very effective.

2. Openness

Sometimes hand gestures really aren’t rocket science.

When you want to show that you are being open and transparent, simply holding your hands out with your palms open to your audience will achieve that impression.

Showing you have nothing to hide is the best way to show that you have nothing to hide, according to the authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, who say that open palms are associated with truth and honesty.

3. Confidence

Here’s a gesture you’ll have seen lots of times in public speaking and on television.

If you want to show that you are a deep thinker with important ideas that you fully believe in, try steepling your fingers like Sherlock Holmes does while he’s announcing who the killer is.

It’s body language that gets used a lot by powerful and successful people, like lawyers and CEOs and there’s a reason for that. So if you want to achieve that kind of success, this is the hand gesture you need.

Related: How to Look and Sound More Confident

4. Enthusiasm

If you have a big idea to share, you need to emphasize your own enthusiasm for it and its importance.

The easiest way to do this is to hold your arms out wider than your body, according to body language expert Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, who found that doing so conveys something grand to your audience and communicates your enthusiasm as well.

You’re showing them that this idea is something special and significant, and this gives you a better chance of convincing them of that too.

This gesture is one that definitely needs to be kept controlled and natural though, as exaggerating your arm movements here can run the risk of distracting from your point or making you seem less genuine or believable.

5. Precision

When you want to make a point that absolutely cannot be disputed – or at least you don’t think it can and want to make sure everyone else agrees with you – this short, sharp chopping motion with your hand physically demonstrates that.

It shows that you are being precise and certain in a way you couldn’t achieve without the hand gesture, as the moment when your hand comes to an abrupt stop works as a way of physically grounding your message for the audience.

Related: The Four Elements of Strategic Communication

6. Honesty

In public speaking, you need to convince your audience that you mean what you say and that they can trust you, because otherwise you won’t achieve anything.

So again, it’s a case of using the most obvious body language you can think of to show that you are telling the truth, by literally putting your hand on your heart.

Researchers Parzuchowski and Wojciszke found that when speakers place their hand over their heart they increase their audience’s perception of honesty, so if you feel like you have to convince people that you are genuine, give this one a try.

7. Focus

One of the hardest things to achieve while giving a talk in public is to ensure that your audience is following you, especially if you are trying to make a series of important points.

This is when finger counting can be a useful tool for taking them with you. So literally hold up one hand and count off with your fingers as nonverbal anchors to help people remember what you are telling them.

These seven hand gestures give you a variety of ways to emphasize your points and engage with your audience, whether you are speaking in public or just having an important conversation. So the next time you have something to say, make sure you say it with your hands.

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