How to Use Your Hands When Speaking: A Guide to Gesturing


Hi! I’m Dr. Rob Austin McKee, professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, here with MGT.EDU, the open access business school. In this video, we’re going to give some tips on how to use your hands and arms when speaking, particularly in professional and academic settings. If you must deliver presentations or speeches at work or school, this video should be helpful. I’ll provide a full list of gestures toward the end of the video that you can screenshot for later reference. If you find this video valuable, please hit that like button, subscribe to the channel, and, of course, check out our other content. A transcript of this video is available on my website, robaustinmckee.com.

I have known some professors who instructed their students to present with their arms and hands at their sides. I am not sure why they didn’t allow their students to gesture. But I enthusiastically disagree with that approach. Gestures are an incredibly valuable tool in our communication toolboxes, and we should learn to use them consistently and effectively.

What are gestures?

Gestures involve the movement of the fingers, hands, arms, face, head, and body to express an idea or meaning. They convey important and sometimes unique information and thereby enhance communication. They typically accompany speech. The use of gestures is a universal phenomenon across individuals, cultures, and languages. Several primate species use gestures to communicate despite having no spoken language. Young children begin to gesture before they begin to speak. Congenitally blind people – meaning people who were born without sight – intuitively gesture when they speak. Note that they could not have learned those gestures by observing other speakers.

The research on the emergence of gestures as a component of spoken language is really interesting, but for brevity, let me summarize it by saying that gesturing is a fundamental aspect of the speaking process. We gesture while speaking even when no one can see us doing it. If you want to confirm this, watch someone speaking on the phone.

Gestures vary across individuals, cultures, and languages. Indeed, there is an intimate connection between a given language and the patterns of gestures inherent to it. As such, I must state that the collection of gestures discussed in this video is going to be most related to a particular language, culture, and individual. The language is English, the culture is American, and the individual is Rob.

The collection of gestures I am going to discuss will not be exhaustive because, to be exhaustive would require a 57-hour video. And, I don’t have time for that.

Before we get into the gestures, let’s establish some frameworks for analyzing them. Those frameworks will also help narrow the focus of this video, so that it’s not 57 hours.

Feel free to skip ahead to the next chapter of this video, titled “Building a Repertoire,” if you aren’t interesting in the frameworks. You won’t hurt my feelings. I present the frameworks here because they will help contextualize and structure the very important content that comes after.

One of the most popular frameworks for categorizing and analyzing gestures was proposed by Adam Kendon and refined by many other researchers.

It categorizes gestures in terms of how linguistic they are, or how directly they map to spoken language. We might ask, “Is this gesture equivalent to spoken language?” Yes or no. How directly a category of gestures maps to speech also determines whether speech is necessary to give the gestures context. So, is speech required to accompany the gestures? Yes or no.

As an example, the most linguistic category of gestures would be sign language. Some researchers don’t even consider sign language to be a category of gestures because it maps precisely to spoken language. It is the verbatim message. Speech is unnecessary. Indeed, the purpose of sign language is to allow persons to communicate even if they cannot hear or otherwise interpret speech.

Emblems are just one step over from sign language, in that they mean something very specific, at least within a given culture, but, unlike sign language, they are not standardized across cultures and they are not used to produce grammatical sentences. Examples of emblems are thumbs up, ok, fingers crossed, and a raised middle finger, which I’m not going to do because it would express a very specific message to you that I don’t want to express. Emblems may have dramatically different meanings across cultures. And their meanings can change drastically within a culture over time. As a general rule, avoid using emblems with a culturally diverse audience so that you don’t accidentally offend someone.

The next category, pantomime, involves portraying some action, event, feeling, or idea through movement alone. There is no speech component. You can think of a mime acting out various scenarios. The popular game Charades involves a lot of pantomime. In this case, the observer must be familiar with whatever concept is being mimed because, again, there is no accompanying speech.

Language-like gestures are up next. They are iconic and metaphoric, meaning that they directly refer to or resemble the content of speech. Indeed, their meanings depend on the content of speech. Some researchers call these gestures illustrators and further subdivide them into ones that mold, draw, act, and represent.

Molding is gesturing as if you were giving shape to an object in front of you using your hands. So, I might shape a sphere in front of me as a globe or a basketball, or I could use the sphere in a more metaphoric way to mean unity.

Drawing is gesturing that traces an object using the fingertips. I might refer to organizational hierarchy and trace a triangle or I might refer to one’s circle of influence.

Acting is gesturing that mimics the actions of an object. I could act as though I was writing with a pen or eating from a bowl.

Finally, representing is gesturing wherein part of the body physically represents whatever object is being illustrated. So, when I was writing before, my right hand was acting like I was writing with a pen, but my left hand was representing a piece of paper. When I was eating, my right hand was acting like I was eating with a spoon, and my left hand was representing a bowl.

Now, these language-like gestures may seem similar to pantomime. But, remember that pantomime is performed in the absence of spoken word whereas language-like gestures require the presence of spoken word for context.

The final Kendon category of gestures is spontaneous gesticulations. Quite a name, I know! These gestures are nonlinguistic, meaning they don’t relate directly to the content of speech, and they don’t occur unless speech is present. These gestures are the more general and common hand motions and body postures that track more with the flow of speech than with its content. I’m using some spontaneous gesticulations right now. They don’t mean anything, but they track with the flow of my speech.

So, there’s our framework. Let’s now use it to narrow our focus. I am not going to discuss sign language. I may refer to emblems to a limited degree. I am not going to discuss pantomime. I am largely going to focus on language-like gestures and spontaneous gesticulations.

What we want to do is establish a repertoire of these gestures that we can call upon whenever we are speaking. We want to become fluent enough with this repertoire such that we can improvise and use gestures spontaneously, just as we do with words.

We are going to start with spontaneous gesticulations as the foundation of effective gesturing when speaking. Again, these kinds of gestures don’t relate directly to the content of speech. Within this category, we most often will refer to maintaining an open body posture. The hands are relaxed. The palms are supinated and facing upward. The elbows are bent. The shoulders are externally rotated. It’s the posture you might show if you were going to give someone a hug.

If I pronate the palms by turning them out, it’s suddenly a very different vibe. You might adopt this posture to show submissiveness if you were confronted by the police or a robber in an alley.

Or, you might adopt this posture when you are being defensive because it allows you, literally, to push others away from you. And, you might adopt this posture to show authority or assertiveness. Stop! Sit down! Let’s calm down. However, you would not adopt this posture to show aggression. Aggression is indicated by a lot of postural cues, but open hands is not one of them. To show aggression, we clench the fists.

Open body postures generally show that we are being vulnerable by exposing our torsos and that we intend the other party no harm because we are keeping our hands in plain sight. Even when we use it to show defensiveness or authority, we are still showing some vulnerability and harmlessness because it is not an aggressive posture.

Palms up is definitely a more relaxed posture, and it should be our default. There certainly will be occasions wherein we should pronate the palms, but those occasions are generally limited to when we are trying to make a more forceful point or to issue instructions. And I’ll cover a couple of other examples later on that use pronated palms.

It’s good balance the open postures you use with a neutral hand and arm position that is more centerline. This posture could involve folding the hands in front of you or bringing your fingertips together with your fingers splayed out. Some people call this gesture the triangle of power or the Merkel diamond after Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor. Some people equate this gesture with wisdom. Either way, it’s a good centerline position.

Ultimately, we want continuous and fluid motion of the hands and arms within this general space. Some people refer to this space as the strike zone, a baseball reference. Of course, you can go outside of that space if you need to make a point, but such instances should be limited.

Gesture inflections points, where we pause briefly before reversing direction or repeating the movement, should come at important or stressed words and syllables.

Let’s move on from spontaneous gesticulations to language-like gestures, where we’re molding, drawing, acting, and representing the content of our speech. I’ll give some specific examples and offer some names for them so that I can provide a full list at the end that you can screenshot and refer to later if you want to practice some of these gestures.

Let’s start with one that I call apples and oranges. It’s a classic gesture built directly on the open body posture we just discussed with palms up. We use this gesture whenever we are comparing or contrasting two things, like management and leadership, efficiency and effectiveness, or apples and oranges. On the one hand, apples are often red, crunchy, and delicious. On the other hand, oranges are orange, juicy, and delicious. It’s like I’m holding the apple out in front of you and then holding the orange out in front of you. It’s a very useful gesture.

Let’s move on to Hearts and minds. Whenever I’m discussing something that I care about or that has affected me emotionally, I can bring my hand or hands to my heart to show it. I love puppies.

And if I’m discussing something more cerebral, I can bring my hand or hands to my head. Think about it.

Next up is the countdown. This gesture is a two-in-one, wherein we show a number with our fingers and then, if necessary, enumerate that number by listing its components. This gesture works best with numbers of 5 or fewer, but we can extent it up to 10. As an example, there are 3 things I want to talk to you about today: apples, oranges, and bananas. There are 7 sources of power we’re going to discuss: legitimate, reward, coercive, information, expert, referent, and prestige. Again, a very useful gesture.

Now that we’ve seen a couple of these gestures, I’m going to move through a few more quickly. Most of these are going to follow a two-in-one format where there’s a sharp contrast between the two ideas being expressed, as we saw with hearts and minds. It will make sense as we go through them.

You, me and us

You out in the audience may be wondering what I am doing here. Well, we are going to go on a little journey together during this discussion.

When referring to the audience, it’s better to use a wave with palms facing the audience than to point at the audience or to keep the palms stationary. But that’s just what I think. You are welcome to come to your own conclusions. It’s ok if we disagree.

Big and little

This technology we have created has enormous potential.

We just need a little bit of funding to get us off the ground.

Open and close

We’re going to open the floor for questions now.

We’re going to close today’s talk with this final point.

Unite and Divide

When we come together and unite, we are unstoppable.

Let’s split into groups.

Inside and outside

I want you to look within yourself.

If we attempt to step outside our own perceptions for a moment, we might find out that we’re not that different.

Moving on and stepping back

Let’s move on to the next topic.

Let’s take a step back.

The timeline (with milestones)

Over the next year, we hope to finish our internal beta testing, do a limited launch of the product, make whatever tweaks we need to make based on feedback, and then do a full launch.

The trendline (with data points)

This entire year we’re seen profits trending upward. During the first quarter, moderately so, During the second quarter, ever more so. And during this quarter, it’s been astounding.

The hierarchy (with levels)

As we move up move up within our organizations to occupy more prestigious positions, we generally take on more responsibilities.

As we examine lower levels of the hierarchy, we often see less job satisfaction.

The first group we’ll examine includes our deckplate employees, the second group includes our frontline managers, the third group includes our middle managers, and the final group includes our executives.

Emphasis: pointing skyward, backhand, and chop

There are a variety of ways we might emphasize a certain point. We might point skyward with one or two hands, we might use an audible backhand, or we might use a slightly less audible chop. Let me leave you with this thought, be careful with audible gestures if you have a sensitive audience.

Uncertainty and indifference : jazz hand(s), shoulder shrug

There are various ways we might show uncertainty or indifference about some issue. We might use the teetering jazz hand or the shoulder shrug with supinated palms.

Mold, Draw, Act, and Represent!

As well as any other gestures we can borrow and invent!

We can unfold ideas.

We can untangle complex topics.

We can air quote.

We can show strength.

We can celebrate victory.

We can negate ideas.

We can show connections.

We can do the politician thumb point.

We can do the politician pinch.

We can roll our hands to indicate some ongoing process.

We can rub our hands in anticipation.

There really is no limit to the possibilities other than our imaginations and the constraints of the situations in which we’re speaking. The more professional the setting, the more conservative we should be in our gesturing.

As a general rule, when it comes to using gestures, variety is good. Variety is key. Be careful not to do the same gesture too much, especially if it is highly distinctive. Try to keep your hands empty, though it may not be possible if you’re holding a clicker or microphone. Some people say that we should never put our hands in our pockets when we are speaking. I think it’s ok to put one hand in a pocket if the other hand is otherwise free to gesture if you want to look casual and relaxed. It depends on the audience. Some people say that we should never point with our index fingers when we are speaking. I think it’s ok to point if that point is directed at something rather than someone. If we are pointing at someone, an open palm directed toward the person may be better. Some people say that we should never cross our arms when speaking. I think it’s ok to cross the arms briefly when sharing something that is introspective, circumspective, or sad.

<<Record short>>

There’s one more category of gestures I’m going to mention that are not covered by Kendon and related researchers. It is nonetheless very important. These gestures are sometimes called adaptors. They are manifestations of our stress and anxiety. I often refer to them as self-soothing gestures. They include wringing the hands, twirling the hair, scratching when there is no itch, rubbing your arms, and fidgeting with objects like papers, pens, and clickers. These gestures do not relate to the content of speech but they do reveal something about the internal state of the speaker. They reveal the speaker to be nervous. They do not convey confidence or competence. Effective speakers will be mindful of self-soothing gestures and will try to eliminate them.

So, there’s a full list of the gestures I have discussed. Feel free to screenshot it for future reference.

I’m going to finish this video with a pro tip. If you tend to perspire a lot, don’t gesture with your hands over your head.

Thanks for watching. I hope you found this video informative and at least mildly entertaining. If so, smash that like button and subscribe to the channel. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or you just want to say hi, please leave us a comment below. Again, my name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee with MGT.EDU. See you in the next video!