6 Tips on Using Gestures In Public Speaking

Help! Where do I put my hands?

Let’s talk about a common, yet tragic public speaking scenario. Sara has spent hours rehearsing her Big Talk at home. She’s thought about the needs of her audience. She’s rolled up to the venue in her power outfit and is feelin’ her look. Sara, in short, is ready to rock it out. But when she stands up in front of the crowd, she is suddenly and overwhelmingly aware of her hands. They are just dangling awkwardly at the ends of her arms. Oh God. What do people usually do with their hands? Is this right? It feels SO UNNATURAL.

In a certain sense, public speaking IS unnatural; it’s a contrived scenario, designed so that one person can influence others. But that means that – lucky for you! – someone else out there has already given plenty of thought to how to best manipulate your presence as the speaker for maximum benefits. Read on for my top tips on using hand gestures to improve your public speaking and banish that panicked feeling of confusion once and for all.

1. YOU are your first, best visual aid.

Here’s a truth for you: most speakers default to using slides, video clips, posters, or other visual aids because it just seems like the thing to do. But a visual aid that doesn’t ADD anything to our presentation will only drag you down and make you appear less polished and authoritative. If the subject of your text is not visual in nature (i.e. blueprints, film clips, web design), consider that YOU might be all the visual aid that you need. Which leads me to…

2. Start with the text: look for areas of emphasis.

If you’re struggling with how to move your body during a presentation, it might be because you don’t understand your own presentation well enough. Sit down with a paper copy of your outline or manuscript and walk through it with a highlighter, looking for the most important points, the examples that are critical to understanding your perspective, and structural language like transitions and previews. (That’s right, I said a hard copy. Try this on paper instead of digitally editing, at least once – it makes a difference). Once YOU really understand the flow and the key points of your presentation, you will start to see the places that will benefit from some bodily illustration.

3. Help the audience follow along.

Oral communication can be tough for audiences. After all, there’s a reason why we don’t listen to many two-hour speeches these days. Help your listeners follow along by using gestures to outline lists and sequences. If you’re previewing major points in your speech, listing the component parts of any type of system, or describing the relationships between people, places, and things, you can show me all of those things with your hands. Thinking about gesturing in terms of what your audience needs – instead of what you need – can clarify when hand movements help, and when they hurt that bottom line of getting an audience to accept your central argument.

4. Think INSIDE the box.

Gestures need to be visible to your audience. Imagine drawing a rectangle in front of your torso; it begins about at your collarbone, extends to the outsides of your shoulders, and down to your belly button. This is your safe zone for gesturing! Big enough to allow free range of motion, but contained enough to avoid the “crazy grandpa” handwaving stereotype. The gesture box also helps avoid “penguin hands,” the result of a speaker’s hands trying to move while their elbows and forearms remain rigidly locked to their sides. Penguins are adorable, but not known for their persuasive talents. Don’t be a penguin.


5. Say it with me: mittens in pairs.

Do you remember in old-timey movies or picture books when every child under the age of ten seemed to be sporting a pair of knitted red mittens that were attached to each other by a cord? Put on a nice imaginary pair of those babies. Consider how your hands would look: fingers loosely held together (not splayed apart), thumbs relaxed. Because your mittens are a pair, your hands move together as a natural unit. The “mittens in pairs” approach wards against getting stuck in one gesture, the off-putting phenomenon of choppy robot hands, or only relying on your dominant hand (creating an unbalanced appearance). My main man, President Barry O, is providing an excellent real-life example of the mittens approach in the photo up top.

6. Practice how you play.

Yep, that high school track/football/field hockey/soccer coach was right. You can’t adequately prepare for a speech that will ultimately be delivered standing, with a microphone, to a large audience if you practice sitting cross-legged on your bed and mumbling to yourself. #sorrynotsorry

Stand up, square those shoulders, breathe deep, and deliver your speech the same way you will in front of that audience. Now, when you actually take the stage (or lectern, or the head of the table), your body will already be familiar with the required actions. This is one of the best suggestions I can give you for cutting down on nervousness! Do not let the first time you run through your entire speech – standing up, out loud – be the day of the presentation.

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