What Do I Do With My Hands

Part 5 of 5 – The Hands

Let’s jump right into benefits of proper use of hand gestures that have been demonstrated by various studies.


  • Holler and Beatie found that gestures increase the value of our message by 60%
  • Researchers have found that infants who use more hand gestures at 18-months old have greater language abilities later on. Hand gestures speak to great intelligence.
  • Gesturing helps you access memories. Using hand gestures while you speak not only helps others remember what you say, it also helps you speak more quickly and effectively
  • Nonverbal explanations help you understand more. One study found that forcing children to gesture while they explained how to solve math problems actually helped them learn new problem-solving strategies.
  • Hand gestures make people listen to you. Spencer Kelly, associate professor of Psychology and co-director of the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University found that gestures make people pay attention to the acoustics of speech. Kelly said, “Gestures are not merely add-ons to language – they may actually be a fundamental part of it.”
  • In a human behavior research lab, thousands of hours of TED talks were analyzed and a striking pattern was found: The most viral TED Talkers spoke with their words AND their hands. Specifically, the least popular TED Talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18-minute talk. The most popular TED Talkers used an average of 465 hand gestures—that’s almost double! 

Here are a few suggestions to practice when using your hands for speaking.

Stay in the box.
Think outside the box, but gesture within the box. Appropriate hand speaking space is from the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist. If you go outside this box, it’s seen as distracting and out of control.
Make your gestures purposeful.
Just like you bullet point out a pitch or presentation, do the same with gestures. The best Ted Talkers used their hands purposefully to explain important points.
Know what you want to say.
If you have a big speech coming up, prepare your words, otherwise your gestures can try to overcompensate. According to Elena Nicoladis, a researcher at the University of Alberta who studies hand gestures, people who have trouble finding the right words are more likely to speak with their hands.
The smoother the better.
We love fluid hand gestures. Jerky and robotic prepared moves are distracting. Practice speaking with your hands until it feels and looks natural.
Film yourself.
Film yourself chatting with someone on the phone. You might be surprised what kinds of gestures you use and how many you use during the conversation. Then, film your speeches and elevator pitch. Have a friend give you feedback on your gestures.

Remember, think about your verbal content and match your hand gestures to what you are saying:

    The easiest and most basic hand gesture is numerical. ANY TIME you say a number, do the corresponding gesture–this makes your number easier to remember for the listener, adds movement and warmth to your body language and serves as a nonverbal anchor in the conversation.
    Any time you want to emphasize a small point like something that they shouldn’t take too seriously or a small addition–show it with a pinching motion.
    Want to make a big grand gesture? Then, the ‘everything’ gesture is your go to. With the elbows at the side, sweep both hands (palm-down) from right to left. It is as if you are sweeping across all of the ideas to be inclusive.
    Alternate: This can also be used to say you are ‘Wiping the slate clean’ or pushing something out of the way.
    This is a really easy one and can be used to literally show someone what level something is. You can use this to indicate how big or small something is or where someone stands.
    A steeple is when you lightly tap the tips of your fingers together. It is seen as a wise gesture, but don’t overuse it.
    Whenever you move your hand or gesture upwards, you indicate some kind of growth or increase. This can be used to indicate the expected growth, excitement or direction where something is headed.
  7. YOU/ME
    Any time you gesture into someone else’s space or personal area, you tie them to your words. Do this with the open hand or palm. Pointing is very aggressive. You can do the ‘you’ gesture to make someone feel included or highlight that something you are talking about applies to the person you are speaking with.
    Any time we bring our hands in towards our heart or chest, we usually want to indicate to ourselves.
    When you bring both of your hands together, it is a gesture of combining and is a great way to symbolically show two forces coming together as one. You can even mesh or fold your hands together to show complete togetherness.
    When your hands are at a 45-degree angle with the palms facing up, you are showing openness and honesty. It’s like you are saying you are laying it all out on the table.
    Alternate: When your palms face up with fingers spread, it means you need something.
  10. WE
    The last one can be the most powerful. This gesture can be used whenever you are speaking in a group or to an audience. You open up your arms as if you are wrapping them in a hug, making the ‘we’ gesture. You can also do this when standing next to someone and actually placing your hands behind them as if to indicate you are in my inner circle. It is a lovely ‘come together’ gesture when used correctly.

There it is. In five days (imagine me holding up five fingers) it is impossible to cover body language comprehensively. But, I have given you  some great points to refer to as needed.

You keep reading. I will keep you included in the messages.


Rick Burris


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