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Hand gestures: what to do with your hands when presenting

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One of the most common questions I'm asked at seminars is, "What should I do with my hands?"

Well . . . some people will advise you, ‘Stop talking with them; hold them by your sides!’ I think that's rubbish. Remember you're trying to sound natural and give the audience the perception that you're having a conversation (for why this is critically important, see Vocal Delivery: sounding conversational). And one of the things we do when we have a conversation, is use our hands. Can you imagine having a conversation with a friend of family member while keeping your hands by your sides? It just wouldn't feel right, would it?

I agree that you don't want to wave your hand around aimlessly like a semaphore operator without flags, but what you should do is deliberately talk with your hands, but use carefully-planned, specific gestures instead of subconscious ones you’re unaware of!

You may think it doesn’t really matter what gestures you use, that it’s the verbal content that matters. But in one study, a 10-minute presentation was given to several small audiences. The only difference was the hand gestures used. The audience was feedback was startlingly different.

84% positive when the hand was held upwards
52% positive when it was held downwards
Only 28% positive when a finger point was used

There are three main types of hand gesture:

  1. Iconic
  2. Metaphoric
  3. Beat

1. Iconic gestures are closely linked to the meaning of what we are saying and help to explain it. For example, if you were telling a story which involved you turning a key in a lock, you may actually hold your fingers as if they held a key and turn them to the right as you said those words. If you were explaining how you drank a glass of water very quickly, you might hold your hand as if it contained a glass and then tip it quickly towards your mouth whilst tipping your head back.

  Obama on the one hand

2. Metaphoric gestures are similar to iconic gestures but they are used to describe abstract ideas rather than actualthings or events. For example, if you said “I was there last year” , toy might accompany the words by making your hand into a fist, raising it to shoulder height and then pointing the thumb backwards over your shoulder.
By doing this, ‘the past’ is represented as being behind you. Similarly, a presenter wishing to put two halves of an argument might hold both hands to his left whilst explaining one side, and then move them to the right to explain the other.

3. Baton gestures are the most important from a presenting perspective. They beat time to the rhythm of your speech and tend to be used regardless of the words you're saying, and it's these that I want to concentrate on.

They illustrate how you feel about what you're saying rather than the words themselves and are used to make points of emphasis. We tend to be completely unaware of them and use them so unconsciously that most of us even use them on the telephone.

Unless you're gripping the sides of the lectern or holding a glass of water,youer hands will seldom be still. They'll dip, wave, sway, point, chop, jab, punch, grasp, clench and flick in brief, unplanned gestures.

Most of us are completely unaware of the baton signals we use. We know we ‘wave our hands about’ when we speak, but we're completely unable to describe the precise gestures we use.

Some of the more common and most useful hand gestures are explained below. You have two action points here:

  • Firstly, identify which ones you use habitually. If you don’t have a video tape of yourself ‘in action,’ record yourself rehearsing. An alternative is to rehearse in front of a mirror or your partner and ask him/her to identify your most frequent gestures and mannerisms. Once you’ve identified them, ask yourself whether they are helping or hindering you. If they’re not projecting the image you want, stop doing them. If they are, think about how to do them better.
  • Secondly, try rehearsing with a heavy book in each hand. This will stop all but the most essential gestures. The points at which you still raise the book(s) are those where a gesture is really necessary. At those points, ask yourself which gestures would best underline them.

The Open Palm

Palin open palms Blair open palms

A common gesture is to extend the hand in a flat, neutral position with the fingers together with the fingers pointing to the side or downwards. This shows that a speaker has nothing to hide; it is a blatant demonstration of honesty, a ‘would I lie to you?’ gesture, a demonstration that he has nothing up his sleeve (or in his hand, like a concealed weapon; I kid you not – the handshake originated in Roman times to show that someone was unarmed).

It is the gesture universally used by football/soccer players expressing their innocence to referees when a decision has gone against them.

Use it when you want:

  • people to believe you
  • people to trust you, e.g. “I’m a pretty honest kinda guy …”
  • to express sincerity
  • a  cop not to give you a speeding ticket

The Palm Back

Obama palm in McCain palm in Kerry palms in

Here the hands are brought towards the front of the speaker’s body and held there for several seconds with the palm(s) facing towards the chest.

It's a metaphorical attempt to embrace the audience and pull them closer to the speaker’s point of view.



Use it when:

  • you're trying to persuade the audienceabout something you passionately believe in.

Side Palm

Sarkozy palms in Powell side palm Bush side palm

When the palm is held side on in a handshake position and beaten up and down, it's like an urge to reach out and touch the audience, showing a strong desire to reach out and persuade them with an idea or opinion.

When done with both hands, it looks almost as if the speaker is trying to physically hand his argument or point of view over to the audience.

Use it when:

  • you're trying to persuade the audience about something.

The Precision Grip

Obama finger pinch Chirac precision grip

Here the hand is held as if gripping an imaginary object with the thumb and first finger. Just as we use a precision grip when holding a small or delicate object, so in speaking we use it when we wish to express ourselves delicately or with accuracy. It is often used when a speaker is trying to explain the finer details or minutiae of an argument.

Use it when you want to emphasise:

  • the finer points of your argument, e.g. “And here we come to the crux of the matter ….”
  • the really important bits, e.g. “The real issue we should be discussing today is this ….
  • the fact that something is very small, e.g. “In reality it only accounted for 0.001% of output.
  • or delicate, e.g. “This is the most delicate part of the negotiation …”

Power Grip

McCain finger grasp Jackson power grip  
Sometimes called a Grasp, this is similar to the precision grip, but uses the whole hand. It is how we hold our hand for grasping something such as a tool or weapon. The result in speaking is a bent hand or ultimately, a fist.

With the fingers stiffly spread and slightly bent, it is used when the speaker is trying to get to grips with a bigger subject, but hasn’t quite succeeded. The hand seems to be grabbing at something but doesn’t quite follow through. But unlike the precision grip, there is nothing delicate about this.

Use it when you want to emphasise:

  • the need to get control of something
  • the need to get to grips with a thorny problem

The Fist

Schwarzenegger fist Putin fist
When the fingers in the power grip close over completely to form a fist, the gesture is so universal that it is impossible to misunderstand. By closing the fingers around the metaphorical issue or problem, the speaker is demonstrating that he has a firm grip on the situation.

It shows determination, commitment and strength of belief, and is ironically therefore often deliberately used by speakers who have none of these.

A variant is the Air Punch. This is probably the most aggressive of all baton gestures, as it is almost impossible to misunderstand the emotions behind a punch. While the fist grips the air, the Air Punch actively punches it aggressively, as if delivering a physical blow.

Use it when you want to show:

  • you have grasped the issue
  • you know how to deal with it
  • you are determined to do something
  • you really believe in something

The Hand Weave

Cameron finger weave Putin finger weave Bush finger weave
Here the hands are held horizontally with the palms facing the speaker, and the fingers butted up against, or weaved with, each other. It is used to show how different strands of an argument fit together, or when a presenter want to pull various strands of thought together into a coherent whole.

Use it when you want to:


    • show how different issues are interlinked
    • bring people of different or opposing views together
    • bring different strands of thought together into a coherent whole
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