Visual Delivery Skill #3: Hands and Gestures


Presenters: Use Your Hands and Gesture Well… But Be Natural!

How we use our hands and how we gesture—or don’t—affects how we present, how we look when we present and how our audience sees and hears us.

Hands and gestures are great for burning off nervous energy. They come in two varieties—punctuation and picture. Punctuation gestures happen every time your hands “twitch” in sync with your speech. Picture gestures are, well pictures. You show what a graph looks like with a gesture. You describe where pieces of furniture are located in a room.

Gestures both punctuate what you say, and they help you “paint” pictures. In reality, you are your most powerful visual aid. Perhaps the most important reason to use your hands...gestures help you to burn off nervous energy.

Here’s the logic behind using your hands:

  • > People who use their hands are more interesting to watch

  • > If people are more interesting to watch, listeners will pay closer attention

  • > If people pay closer attention, they’ll listen better

  • > If people listen better, they will retain more of the message

It’s a bit of a push to say, “Use your hands so people retain more of your message,” you get the general logic flow.

When it comes to your hands, we’ve got four rules:

  1. Keep hands ready

  2. Don’t force them

  3. Project your voice

  4. Move around the room

Keep Hands Ready.

People ask us all the time, “What do I do with my hands?“ Don’t lock them up! Clasp them or put them in your pockets and you won’t use them. Find a place where you can rest them, perhaps where it’s NOT comfortable, like at your sides. Many people will start to use gestures, since this location is fairly uncomfortable. A second option, is to put one hand in a pocket. (Be sure that pocket is empty of change or keys, so you don’t become an audible distraction to yourself.) That’s almost a guarantee that you won’t clasp them together, and while it’s more casual, it makes some presenters comfortable enough to gesture with the other hand.

Most people clasp their hands at some point when they present. That’s not an issue as long as your hands don’t get stuck in that position. Whether clasped in front or the behind-the-back military clasp, we find that bad things happen when people bring their hands together. They rub them and fidget with them and that looks less than comfortable. As David Zehren says to clasped, fidgeting hands, “We’re glad you’ve found a hand to hold, but you you two sure are distracting!” (Or, perhaps less politely paraphrased: Get a room!)

Clasped hands also tend to have a negative effect on stance. There is a connection between our hands and feet (Remember, when it comes to nervous energy: You use it, or it uses you!. Clasped hands most often results in distraction and movement—shifting side-to-side or wandering around.

We don’t encourage clients to grasp the podium or lean on nearby tables when presenting. Bad things happen all too often when we grasp the podium—we display nervousness by grasping too tightly; we start doing push-ups off the podium and rocking back and forth; we lean and slouch and look lazy or sloppy or disinterested. Leaning on a table for a moment or two can be fine. Problems occur when we linger too long and start slouching or when we find a pen or papers on the table and start distracting ourselves and our audience.

Don’t Force Them.

Forced gestures look...well, forced! In order for our gestures to be natural, they need to immediately precede what we say. Force them and they come after what we say. Once you’ve seen that, you’ll never forget it.


In our experience, 80% of presenters don’t use their hands enough; 20% use their hands plenty. Most of us should use our hands more.

Project Your Voice.

There is a link between your hands and your feet; there is also one between your voice and your hands. We don’t know which drives the other, but the connection exists, and it’s a good thing we can all leverage. You’ve got to speak a bit louder than what you think is appropriate. You need to be slightly more animated than what you think is appropriate. By pushing more vocally, most people gesture more. (We’ll talk about your voice in subsequent blogs.) We also see that when people gesture more dramatically, their voices get more engaged.

Another tip—use the projected image when using PowerPoint (or a white board, flip chart or other visual). When pointing to something on the screen we gesture more (our arms move more dramatically) than they would without the projected image. In almost every case, a big gesture is accompanied by a spike of animation in our voices—and that’s a good thing!

[Danger Will Robinson!!!][0] As long as we’re talking about gesturing to your visuals, here’s a point about pointers of any type. DON’T USE ONE! The best pointer you have, and the only one you need 99% of the time is attached at the end of your wrist. If you need a point of light to highlight something on your visuals, you probably have way, way, way, way, way too much on it. (See David Zehren’s video clip about [improving data-dense slides][1] and also about [simplifying and being more dramatic][2]) If your visuals are well produced, a simple point of your hand (a move mastered by the many-times-over-millionaire Vanna White) in the general direction will direct your listeners to precisely the right place on the screen or board.

Move Around the Room.

Some people need to get their feet engaged in order to get their hands engaged. That’s fine, as long as you keep [our two rules for movement in mind][3] (ie, don’t move without a good reason / find a good reason to move!). This is not license to starting pacing aimlessly around the room. One reason to move—use your projected images. If you keep the previous point in mind, you’ll move with purpose and use your hands to great impact.

In our experience, 80% of presenters don’t use their hands enough; 20% use their hands plenty. So, over half of us can use a reminder to make better use of hands and gestures. We encourage presenters to use their hands and to find good reasons to use their hands and gesture. Effective use of hands and gestures can have a big impact on our presentations and the audiences to whom we present.