Ten Tips to Help You Gesture Like a Genius During Your Next Presentation

Take a look down at your hands. Ten digits, opposable thumbs, a palm that helps you hold apples and give high fives. Now, take in the glory of your arms. They help you hug, throw a baseball, provide directions and do the wave at a concert. Awesome.

Hands and arms. They are wildly useful appendages that we know how to use in our lives. But when we get up to present, we’re at a loss. We have no idea what to do with them. They become limp, dangling fish. Or fidgety nervous nellies. Or so shy they never once come out of our pockets.

Our hands and arms have so much to offer our communication, so make the most of them!

And this is a shame because our hands and arms have so much to offer our communication. Here are five gesture DOs and five gesture DON’Ts that will help you make the most of your hands during your next presentation…

TOP FIVE GESTURE DON’Ts

  1. DON’T adopt the “crown jewels” stance. If you’re a man, never stand with your hands cupped over your crown jewels.  Not only does this place the emphasis in the wrong place (unless you’re talking about athletic protective gear), it also rolls your shoulders forward and draws them down which diminishes your presence. Stand with your hands above your belt buckle area. This will roll your shoulders back, enhance your presence and your hands will be ready to help you make a point.
  2. DON’T jam your hands in your pockets. Jamming your hands in your pockets and leaving them there because you think it solves your appendage problem is not the answer. By hiding them away you are robbing yourself of a great opportunity to communicate.
  3. DON’T stand in the “at ease” position. Even if you are addressing military personnel, don’t stand with your hands clasped behind your back. It’s awkward, stiff and unnatural – you would never do this in a conversation. When I see people do this it makes me think they are worried their hands will misbehave and inadvertently flip the audience the bird!
  4. DON’T hitch up your pants or skirt. It doesn’t make you look folksy or charming. It makes you look like you forgot your belt – or that you’re looking for the saloon.
  5. DON’T keep your hands moving all the time. When we’re nervous, we tend to one end of the gesture spectrum or the other. We either lock our hands in place or move them madly. As with so many things in life, they are best used in moderation. We want our gestures to help convey our key points, not detract from them.

And here is a sixth bonus DON’T…

  1. DON’T steeple your fingers. Unless you are 65 years old, have a PhD and a well-earned mane of grey hair you can not get away with this. At best it looks contrived, at worst it looks like a bad Dr. Evil impression, and therefore ridiculous.

TOP FIVE GESTURE DOs

  1. DO use your hands early. It’s a good idea to start using your hands early in your presentation because it will loosen you up and make you appear more comfortable and confident.
  2. DO acknowledge your host/introducer. After someone introduces you, you can start your hand gestures with a subtle, single-handed open palm thank you to coincide with your verbal thank you. Or you can greet the audience with a good morning/afternoon accompanied by a double open palm gesture.
  3. DO minimize your conversational gestures. We all have a collection of informal and unfocused hand movements – a murky cocktail of Mr. Miagi meets bouncing-ball-lyrical syncopation. This can make you charming in a conversation but it makes it hard for people to take you seriously when you’re presenting.
  4. DO make thoughtful use of definitive gestures. Listen for verbal cues that could be matched up with a definitive gesture. This helps you align your content with your hands. Here are some ideas to get you started:
    • Enumerate. When you tell your audience you want to share three key ideas with them, enumerate them by stabbing the air with appropriate number of digits. Don’t point them at your audience when you do this. Enumerating your content with gestures helps you deliver with clarity and conviction.
    • Delineate a timeline. If you’re talking about something that happened over time, or will roll out in the coming months or years, use an open palm chop to place the date on a horizontal timeline. Orient the timeline from the audience’s perspective – from their left to their right, not yours.
    • Accentuate simple adjectives and adverbs. Listen for simple adjectives and adverbs – like “large”, “small”, “huge”, “exploded”, “grow”, “shrunk” – and match your gestures to them. You don’t want to act out your presentation or look like you’re playing charades. Capture the essence of descriptive words and phrases and convey them with your hands.
    • DO build your hand gesture vocabulary in private. If you’ve been a quiet hand-talker, it may feel unnatural integrating some hand movement into your presentation. Try to use your hands next time you are on a conference call when no one can see you. Chances are, they will hear you with greater clarity, conviction and authority, all led by your hands.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel about the use of gestures in your presentations? Are you conscious of the gestures you use? What success have you had introducing more definitive gestures into your presentations? Do you have any gesture disasters in your presentation past? Share your experience in the comments below.

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About Trevor Currie

Trevor is the Founder of Podium Consulting, a presentation skills company that helps business leaders become stronger, more influential communicators. Trevor is the host of The Podium Project podcast and regularly shares speaking tips and insights with the Podium Club and on Twitter @trevcurrie.

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