6 rules for using gestures in presentations

Audiences like speakers who talk with their hands, but not every gesture is a good one. Follow these tips to ensure your hand movements are enhancing—not sabotaging—your speech.

Research shows that audiences view presenters who gesture as more effective and competent than those who keep their hands still.

Consider this: According to The Washington Post, the least-watched TED talks have an average of 124,000 views and include an average of 272 gestures. The top-ranked TED talks, however, have an average of 7.4 million views and 465 gestures.

Why do gestures affect speakers’ effectiveness?

Studies show that our hand movements constitute a second language. They add information that’s absent from our words.

How can you ensure your gestures add the appropriate information to your spoken message? Check out the tips below:

1. Be natural.

Don’t force unnatural gestures, and practice extensively before using new movements in front of an audience. If your gestures seem inauthentic or over the top, they’ll probably distract your audience.

Practice at least seven times before you try new gestures in public. Practicing less than that will probably be insufficient, so commit the time to ensure you get the most out of your gestures.

2. Display numbers.

Displaying numbers with your hands is one of the easiest gestures to add to your repertoire. If you’re going to present three main ideas, show three fingers when introducing your talk’s structure.

If a quantity exceeds 10, forming the number will obviously be challenging. Use your hands to communicate numbers of 10 or fewer; communicating quantities of five or fewer will feel the most natural given that they require only one hand.

3. Open your palms.

Open palms are a simple way to put your audience at ease. Humans around the world use open palms to demonstrate lack of a threat. When police surround a suspect, the suspect may display empty palms to show he doesn’t have any weapons.

In his TED talk, Allan Pease shared the results of a case study that examined palms’ persuasiveness. In the study, the speaker who held his palms upward had up to 40 percent more success than the speaker who held his palms down.

Watch Pease’s talk to learn more:

4. Stay in the strike zone.

The strike zone is the most natural area in which to gesture. It ranges from your hips to just below your shoulders.

Sometimes your gestures will go outside of this area, and that’s OK. However, aim to keep your gestures within it. If your hands frequently wander outside of the strike zone, you’ll distract the audience.

5. Don’t point.

Just don’t do it. Pointing communicates aggression and will make your audience uncomfortable. If you tend to point a lot while speaking, find an alternative gesture to use instead. It’s best to opt for open palms or other motions that more accurately communicate your message.

If you absolutely must point, point at your slides or a physical object—not people.

6. Remember to relax.

Every now and then, take a break from gesturing and let your hands relax naturally at your sides. This ensures your most meaningful gestures will retain their impact.

For example, if you want to gesture during your most important points, keep still in the moments immediately before your key takeaways. This brief break will help you emphasize your main points.

What you do with your hands during a presentation matters. Your gestures are a second language that communicates powerful messages to your audience. Practice your gestures before your next presentation to make sure you take advantage of their power.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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This article first ran on Ragan.com in Dec. 2015.

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