12 tips for using gestures in your speech

Did you know that if you mimic the gestures of your listeners they will be more receptive to your message? Read on for more gesturing gems.

You carry three important sets of tools with you into every presentation, speech or informal talk: your arms, hands and fingers.

With them, you can gesture to add color and emphasis to your words. The advantages are two-fold—gestures not only help you produce words, but they help your audience understand your message. This holds true whether the gestures are generic or specific to your point.

Think of gestures as a way to help the audience “see” your point. Use these 12 tips to do it well:

1. Know the importance of gestures. Gestures don’t just contribute to your message. They may actually help you think during your speech, says this book from a researcher who looks at gestures and how they help us speak.

2. Understand where gestures originated. When you shrug your shoulders and turn both palms up, you repeat what might be the oldest gesture of all—one that signals you won’t hurt the person in front of you. Researchers think gestures may have been the beginning of human speech.

3. Mimic your audience. Gestures that mirror those of your audience—whether one person or a crowd—can contribute to your ability to describe your point, research says.

4. Keep your audience’s attention. If you think you’re losing the audience, gestures are tools you can use to bring your listeners back to your remarks.

5. Plan your gestures. It’s smart to plan your gestures before you speak, particularly if you want to emphasize certain points or aren’t sure whether you gesture too much or too little. Mark your text to remind yourself when and how to gesture.

6. Determine whether anything will block your gestures. What gets in the way of your gestures? Jewelry? Your name tag? Your hair? Check my list of 4 things to remove before speaking to find out.

7. Record yourself on video. If you want to master your gestures, watch a recording of yourself. You might be like the trainee in one of my workshops who was convinced she gestured too much. A review of the video showed she gestured just once or twice. You’ll never know how much you gesture without some video practice.

8. Don’t keep your hands still. Here’s a speaker’s secret: If your hands are immobilized—gripped tightly or in your pockets—you’ll stumble more often during your speech. If you gesture, you will speak better.

9. Don’t point. Audiences in many cultures consider pointing impolite, so try my five finger exercises to avoid pointing while still directing your listeners.

10. Notice which hand you gesture with. Whether you gesture with your left hand or your right may have meaning. Researchers who looked at politicians’ gestures found that politicians gesture with one hand when they make positive points and the other hand when they talk about negative points, regardless of whether they are right- or left-handed. This is tough to control, but good to know.

11. Don’t lock onto the lectern. In fact, gestures can help you use—or lose—the lectern to good effect.

Who needs that pointer when you brought two perfectly good ones into the room with you? Use your arms and hands instead.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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