How To Talk With Your Hands – And Say What You Mean

Talking with your hands is can engage your audience and make your speech or presentation more compelling. When you know how to talk with your hands effectively, hand gestures can help the flow of your speech, convey emotion and emphasize points, break up large blocks of information, and built rapport with the audience.

What Does It Mean When You Talk With Your Hands?

In public speaking and elsewhere, hand gestures are some of the most powerful ways to impart a message. Nonverbal communication aids your words and makes you more engaging and persuasive. 

However, you don’t just aimlessly move them about when you talk with your hands. The key is using hand movements strategically yet naturally to emphasize key points, enhance clarity, and even convey emotions. 

Is It Acceptable To Talk With Hand Gestures?

Picture this: You’re attending a talk, and the speaker only uses minimal hand gestures throughout their presentation. Now, ask yourself: Would you be as convinced as you would if the speaker moved their hands more? 

If you ask any body language expert, you’ll learn that talking with your hands can boost your credibility, agreeableness, and trustworthiness. In fact, a study shows that 20% of the respondents were more likely to listen and be engaged to comprehend what someone is saying if they speak with accompanying hand gestures.

More research analyzing hundreds of TED Talks showed that the most popular videos featured speakers that used an average of 465 hand gestures. The most viral speakers even demonstrated over 600 gestures within just 18 minutes.

Speaker poings something our with hand gestuees

Is It Professional To Talk With Your Hands?

Now, moving your hands excessively can be too distracting, as TED Talk speaker Lynne Franklin shared in this Linkedin article. But, as she wrote, “Your words may describe something, but your hands symbolically turn this into action.”

Hand movements, when coupled with the right facial expressions and eye contact, can be powerful body language that helps your listeners better understand your message and main points. 

When you observe great and charismatic leaders, you’ll see them communicating via active gesturing. When you watch effective speakers, you’ll notice that they help command their audience and deliver their speech or presentation by doing something with their hands. 

When you let your hands stay idle, or use them the wrong way, you can come off as cold and uninteresting. Just keep in mind to do hand movements purposefully (We’ll present tips on how to do it in the next sections).

How Does Talking With Your Hands Help You When Giving A Speech?

According to author and keynote speaker Carol Kinsey Goman, using hand gestures and body language is “the silent language of leaders.” She argues that such things, along with posture, facial expressions, and eye contact, can communicate louder than words. 

But how do hands really help anyone when they’re speaking? 

University of Chicago psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out various types of hand movements. For instance, sign language and everyday hand actions (e.g., combing one’s hair) differ from “co-speech gestures.” There’s a science behind the effectiveness of co-speech gestures. But, in a nutshell, she states that hand movements decrease “the amount of mental energy you’re expending to keep things in your working memory.”

The working memory is a part of the human brain that temporarily stores data. As it has a limited capacity, overloading it can slow down cognitive processes, making it harder for people to understand something (e.g., a speech) in its entirety.  

How Can I Control My Hands While Talking?

Want to make effective hand gestures while talking? Apart from ensuring there’s no mismatch in your words and body language, you have to be consciously aware to use your hands in a controlled manner. 

The first thing to do is to observe yourself first. Record your speech and presentation rehearsals, playback, and notice how you use your hands. Experts note that you must always maintain your hand gestures within the so-called “hand-speaking” space, which runs from your chest to your waist. If you move your hands outside of this bubble, your gestures will be deemed exaggerated.

When practicing your talk, keep in mind the main points or concepts you want to emphasize because these will serve as your basis for moving your hands. For instance, if you’re stating a statistic that depicts growth, you can use your hands to demonstrate an upward movement or expansion.

Observing skilled speakers and studying how they use their hands is also good practice. You can take inspiration from them and contextualize them using your own style and the kind of speech you will deliver. 

Open arms hand gesture is welcoming, shows confience, and invites trust
Open arms hand gesture is welcoming, shows confidence, and invites trust

What Are Some Common Hand Gestures?

Goman has also identified common gestures that people make, and they’re categorized into three main categories:

  1. Emblematic gestures. These gestures, which have their own unwritten meanings, vary from culture to culture. People mainly use them in social environments. For instance, when you do a thumbs-up, in many Western countries like the US, it’s interpreted as “good job.”
  2. Pacifying gestures. As the name implies, these self-touching gestures are a way for you to ease out any stress, tension, or nervousness you feel. When you rub your legs or forehead or do a self-hug, you’re doing pacifying body movements. However, take note that doing such movements in a public space can make you look insecure, unprepared, and overcome with anxiety. 
  3. Illustrative gestures. These refer to gestures that indent to illustrate specific points or certain messages. For example, open palms at a 45-degree angle demonstrate openness. When you point your palm up, you depict a pleading position. Meanwhile, you can command an audience to keep silent by pointing your palms down. By doing finger-pointing, you assert dominance. On the other hand, steepling gestures (where you bring your hands together and let your fingertips touch but you keep the palms slightly separated) convey confidence. 
Talking with your hands - hand gestures

Specifically, here are some common gestures defined by Click to see short videos showing the gestures.

  • Listing – finger(s) up for numbers
  • A tiny bit – pinched fingers to indicate a small amount
  • Listen up – slap back of one hand onto other palm
  • Clenched hand intensity
  • Everything – sweep hands to one side
  • Small, medium, and large – show levels by raising hands with palms down
  • “Let me tell you” – ointing and wagging finger –
  • Just a part – moving index finger away from thumb to indicate how much
  • I am magnanimous – both hands apart, facing the audience
  • Growth – move hand upward with palm down
  • You – gesture with open hand toward someone else
  • Me – move the hand toward self
  • This and that – hands represent different positions
  • Come together – bring both hands together
  • I’m ready – bring palms of hand together but not touching
  • It’s just so – bring your palm together vertically with a slicing mothing to indicate precision
  • I’m not hiding anything – hands are open at a 45-degree angle. A variation is facing the palms upward with the finger spread means “I need something”
  • You listen to me – hands facing up, out, or vertically when speaking
  • Stop – flash palm
  • We – open up your arms as if you are wrapping the audience in a hug,
  • Steeple fingers – tenting the fingers with tips together to indicate. There are many variations of this gesture
  • Angela Merkel hands – the low steeple, where hands are held near the belly
  • Thumbs ups – clenching fist with thumbs to indicate “good,” greeting, or understanding
  • V-shaped sign – victory
  • Raise the arm and clenched fist – warning and self-defense

What Are Some Tips For Talking With Your Hands?

In public speaking or even just in everyday conversations, your body movements affect how your audience perceives you and comprehends your message. Keep these things in mind to help you talk with your hands more effectively.

  1. Make sure they don’t remain stiff. If you don’t want to look robotic, you must do something with your hands. But, as stated, make sure you keep your movements within the hand-speaking space. You won’t come off as warm and open when you hide your hands in your pockets. The same is true when you keep your arms crossed. When not in use, you can place your hands by your side. To shake off any awkward or uncomfortable feeling, one trick is to subtly let your index finger touch your thumb. 
  2. Use purposeful movements. Think of hand gestures as a way to communicate your message and important points. Hence, you must ensure that your gestures have a connection to what you’re hoping to impart. Also, you must be mindful of your pace, timing, and rhythm. By aligning your movements to your words.  
  3. Practice — but don’t think of your talk as a performance. Using varied movements can make your talk more dynamic and engaging. You can think of the gestures and rehearse them. But, be careful not to treat your speaking stint as a performance. Otherwise, you will end up looking and sounding rigid. Your goal is to deliver a speech as naturally and authentically as possible. Rehearsals help you internalize your speech and seamlessly synchronize your body with it. 
Talk with your hands  - steeple hands

What Are Some Things That You Can Do With Your Hands While Talking?

Your use of hand can help you ensure effective communication. You can rely on hand gestures to reinforce and emphasize important points during your speech, talk, or presentation.

Additionally, you can use hand gestures to illustrate size, quantity, or impact. When you want to describe a movement (e.g., growth, expansion) or demonstrate comparisons, you can also use your hands, arms, and fingers. 

Beyond their illustrative purpose, you can strategically use hand movements to command your audience — whether you want to keep them silent or ask for a response or a raise of hands. More importantly, you can express your emotions with your hands. Doing so will add depth, character, and a sense of genuineness to your communication. 

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