Using Gestures Effectively During Public Speaking

Gestures Are Important to Get Your Message Across

One important way to help your audience understand what you’re trying to say is through hand gestures. That may seem like a strange thing to say—after all, if your message is clear it’s the words you use that should relay your point, right?

That’s true, but keeping in mind people remember more of what they see than what they hear, it’s your hand gestures that reinforce the words you say, and it’s your body language that provides an indication of how you feel.

Natural Gestures Versus The Robot

Gesturing is a natural communication tool. In a study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, researchers found that children who use more hand gestures at 18 months old have greater language abilities later on. Another study showed people are naturally inclined to listen more closely to people who people who use hand gestures.

When it comes to public speaking, gesturing is as important as good eye contact and an even voice. But for some reason, a lot of people suddenly forget how to gesture once they’re put in front of an audience. They find it difficult to gesture appropriately and at the right time. What ends up happening is their gestures during public speaking look deliberate and unnatural.

A sincere gesture involves the entire body and should have a facial expression to match. Consider the body language of someone you meet up with who hasn’t seen you in a while. Their arms are outstretched as they walk towards you to greet you with a warm hug. Do they approach you with a scowl on their face? Probably not.

How To Gesture Effectively

First, imagine you’re standing behind an invisible box that stretches from your neck to your waist and six inches on either side of you. You’re in control as long as your hands remain inside that invisible box. This space is front and center to you and your audience and once you stray outside of it, you run the risk of your hands becoming a distraction.

Next, keep your hand gestures natural. No one’s hands are constantly moving when they speak; they only use their hands when they want to punctuate certain words or describe things. It’s the same when you’re public speaking: Gesturing shouldn’t look awkward or feel forced. If it does, that’s what your audience is going to remember about your presentation.

The Big Five

There are five main types of gestures that are appropriate for public speaking and they’re appropriate because you see them every day. In fact, I’d wager you don’t even realize you do them all the time.

  1. Descriptive gestures – These are the gestures you use to describe a thing or a situation. Fish tales are usually punctuated with descriptive gestures. (“You should have seen the one that got away!”) You might also use descriptive gestures to describe how something moves.
  1. Emotional gestures – These are the gestures you use to describe a feeling. For example, if you’re describing someone who’s depressed, you might slump your shoulders. If you’re describing being afraid, you might cower. Emotional gestures are great because when you use them, you appear more genuine.
  1. Symbolic gestures – These are the gestures you use to indicate words, numbers or position. Some say anytime you’re communicating a number under five, you should use your fingers because it offers a natural visual that reinforces the number. Other examples of symbolic gestures are giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down and giving the finger. (But don’t do that in your presentation!)
  1. Suggestive gestures – These are the gestures you use to suggest emotion, even when it’s not spoken. They’re similar to emotional gestures because they usually involve more of your body than just your hands. An example of a suggestive gesture is crossing your arms to suggest apathy.
  1. Prompting gestures – These are the gestures you use to encourage others to do the same. Unlike the previous four, these probably aren’t gestures you use in everyday conversation, unless you go around telling people “Raise your hand if…” (and you raise your hand first to encourage your listener to raise their hand too).

Bonus tip: Pointing is a terrible gesture! Don’t ever point—to yourself and certainly not to anyone else. Use an open palm instead.

Gestures During Public Speaking

It’s important for you to let your hands do some of the talking when you’re public speaking, but it’s even more important for you to practice how you’ll gesture so that you can use these movements with purpose to engage your audience and help them understand and remember your message.

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7 thoughts on “Using Gestures Effectively During Public Speaking”

    1. Many of the politicians who have been taught gesturing look ridiculous and fake. Natural gesturing can be effective but the obvious trained gesturing has a negative impact on the message.

  1. I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum in presentations, some people barely use body language, but others are so over-expressive that it distracts from what they are saying.

  2. Pingback: Angela

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