Do you talk with your hands? Hand gestures are an important part of communication and can greatly help you to drive your point home. Hand gestures are a second language that communicates, expresses, and emphasizes your message to your audience.
The value of hand gestures
Our body language, especially our gestures, can help to make our message more comprehensible and valuable, particularly when giving a presentation or speaking in public.
According to a Forbes article, research shows that speakers who utilize a variety of gestures are usually viewed in a “more favorable light” by the audience.
International keynote speaker and executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., writes “Studies have found that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or “wooden”) are seen as logical, cold, and analytical.”
In fact, the most successful business leaders and the best speakers know how to use hand gestures to be more influential and leave a lasting impact on their listeners. A recent study, which analyzed speakers of TED Talks, discovered that the most influential and effective speakers used 465 hand gestures on average.
National best-selling author Vanessa Van Edwards, who conducted the research, writes “In our human behavior research lab, we analyzed thousands of hours of TED talks and found one striking pattern: The most viral TED Talkers spoke with their words AND their hands.”
She adds “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!”
Hand gestures and better communication
Entrepreneur Derek Halpren explains “Hand gestures can help you communicate better, when you talk to people when you give a presentation at work when you’re giving a speech.” According to a 2007 study, using gestures in social interactions can influence the thinking of the listeners. It was also found that gestures help to increase the effectiveness of the message by almost 60%.
Another 2005 study found using gestures while we speak can actually enhance our access to language. Researcher Dr. Elena Nicoladis believes that memory access & gesturing is strongly connected with language.
She says “What we think is going on here is that the very fact of moving your hands around helps you recall parts of the story–the gestures help you access memory and language so that you can tell more of the story.” She adds “If you’re in a situation where it’s important to get the language out and you’re having difficulty, it may help to start making gestures.”
A 2016 study by Seokmin Kang and Barbara Tversky found that gestures promote understanding. The analysis found that hand gestures are able to “map many meanings more directly than language.” It revealed that using gestures in accordance with meaning can improve learning and understanding to a great extent.
The study states “Before there were words, there were gestures, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically. Babies typically gesture before they speak.” The paper adds “Gestures can be more precise and show more nuances than words. Gestures are powerful tools for thinking and communicating because they both represent and resemble.”
Your hands talk more than you think
An article published in the Huffington Post reports that gestures help us to convey our thoughts and emotions better, according to psychologists. Author and body language expert Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, says “Hand gestures are really a powerful aspect of communication, from both the speaker’s and the listener’s end.”
The fact is our hand gestures empower us to express ourselves more intelligibly. Dr. Kinsey Goman adds “Gesture is really linked to speech, and gesturing while you talk can really power up your thinking. Gesturing can help people form clearer thoughts, speak in tighter sentences and use more declarative language.”
Broca’s area, a region in our brain, is responsible for regulating gestures. This area in the brain is connected to the production of speech and is also responsible for waving our hands. One study conducted in 2013 revealed that “gesture is a robust part of human communication and can be harnessed in a variety of ways. Our hands are with us at all times and we routinely use them for communication.”
How to use hand gestures to improve communication
Using hand gestures can certainly improve the effectiveness of your communication. But there are certain things you need to keep in mind –
- Do not go overboard while using your hands to communicate. Your hands gestures should be confined from the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist, suggests best selling author Vanessa Van Edwards. Going out of this zone can be distracting for the listener and have adverse effects.
- Make sure your gestures are expressive, instead of being stiff or out of control. Try to avoid the “Jazz Hands.”
- Use your gestures meaningfully to drive your point home and to make your message clear.
- Keep it natural. Do not try to overcompensate your words with your gestures. Your hand gestures should be smooth and must appear natural. It should complement your speech, not complicate it.
17 most effective hand gestures
Here are some of the most important and helpful hand gestures you should use while speaking. These gestures are widely used by successful entrepreneurs, leaders and the best speakers across the world. Take a look:
1. Listing numbers
When we use a hand gesture while counting or listing something, it helps to make the point clearer. Listing is perhaps the most common and easiest gesture. By doing the relevant gesture every time you talk about a number, you can structure the message. Moreover, it becomes easier for the listener to remember the numbers easily. It acts as a “nonverbal anchor” according to Vanessa Van Edwards of the Science Of People.
2. Money sign
This another basic gesture that is used across the globe to denote money or currency. When you rub the tip of your index finger and middle finger against your thumb repeatedly, it signifies that you’re talking about money. Entrepreneur, speaker and author John Rampton says that this gesture “can be used when talking about sales and is a symbol that everyone in a sales meeting is sure to understand.”
3. The backhand slap
This is another common yet important hand gesture that signifies that you are about to say something important. You simply slap the back of your dominant hand on the palm of the other hand. This gesture and the sound of the slap ask the listener to pay attention and listen up.
Vanessa Van Edwards says “This is a very strong gesture, so use it with caution. It is a ‘bottom line’ hand gesture or ‘listen here’ movement.” Entrepreneur Derek Halpren adds that the backhand slap “adds conviction when you lay down the facts.”
4. Fist Pump
This gesture signifies that you’re determined to achieve something. The fist pump is used to communicate success and signifies “strength, encouragement, and intensity,” explains Derek Halpren. However, Van Edwards warns “Be careful when using this gesture with an irritated voice, because it can come off as anger!”
5. Shelf sweep
This motion is used to convey that getting rid of a set of notions for some new ideas are important. Author John Rampton says, “This gesture requires the use of both hands and involves pushing aside the contents of an imaginary row of books in one direction.”
Best selling author Vanessa Van Edwards, who calls this gesture “everything” adds that although it can be “used to say you are wiping the slate clean or pushing something out of the way,” we can also use the “everything” to make a grand gesture “as if you are sweeping across all of the ideas to be inclusive.”
6. Pinched Thumb & Index
By pinching your thumb and index finger together, you gesture that you agree with someone. Derek Halpren explains “It says, “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” Use this when you agree with the person you’re talking to.”
7. The Steeple
Using the steeple makes us appear wise, smart, calm and in control. It is a powerful gesture that you can do simply by lightly putting all the fingers together. However, it is important that we use this gesture carefully, says Derek. He adds “If you do this in a way that’s too obvious… it just looks like you’re trying too hard.”
Van Edwards says “I have found that when I use this gesture, it centers and calms me. I have not found any research to back this up, but when I do this it’s almost as if I feel more centered and have an easier time taking deep breaths.”
8. Pointing finger
Although it may be considered rude to point, it can be a rather useful hand gesture if you know how to use it. When you point at a particular thing while talking it helps your audience to understand your point better. However, you must use it with caution. John Rampton says pointing “often adds clarity and emphasis to what you are verbally communicating about that item as well as gets your audience to focus.”
Vanessa Van Edwards adds “you can point to get someone’s attention or to literally make a point.”
9. Open hands
When you gesture with open arms it depicts that you have complete knowledge about the topic you are speaking about. Moreover, it also shows that you are being honest and truthful about yourself. Derek Halpren believes that the open arms pose “communicates a sense of vulnerability” and honesty.
Van Edwards explains that “When you have both of your hands apart and palms facing towards the audience, it is a very Godlike pose. Use it when making a grand gesture.” However, she adds that “When your hands are at a 45-degree angle with the palms facing up, you are showing openness and honesty.”
We use this gesture when we want to compare ‘this’ with ‘that’. When you want to talk about two separate ideas or objects and show the contrast, then use your left hand to signify ‘this’ and use your right hand to denote ‘that’. Derek says “Just like counting, whenever you’re contrasting different ideas, use your hands to show it. This is a powerful persuasion technique.”
Vanessa Van Edwards explains “Whenever you want to separate two different ideas or things, you can use your hands to symbolically represent them. This is a great way to put distance between two things.”
11. Big idea
When you want to talk about concepts and ideas that are big or larger than life, then hand movements that are widespread and larger than the outline of your body can convey the message perfectly. However, it is best to use them sparingly. John Rampton explains “While this can be effective in creating credibility, it is best to use these conservatively because if it is all you ever do, you might get the opposite effect. In fact, people might think you are out of control rather than smart.”
Similar to communicating a big idea, talking about growth requires that you move your hands and gestures in an upward motion. This will denote rise, increase, and growth regarding the topic being spoken about. Van Edwards says “This can be used to indicate the expected growth, excitement, or direction where something is headed.”
13. Hands on Heart
This is a universal gesture used to show honesty, truthfulness, sincerity and trustworthiness. When you put your hand on your chest, right above your heart, it signifies that you are speaking from your heart. Entrepreneur Derek Halpren says “Touching your heart means: I’m sincere or I really mean it.”
14. Thumbs up or down
This is another universal sign which has become even more popular now thanks to social media. It is a common symbol, where thumbs up denote approval or agreement and thumbs down signify disapproval or disagreement. John Rampton explains “It is done through extending the thumb while the other fingers stay tucked into your hand. This hand gesture can be recognized all over the world for its meaning.”
15. The Karate Chop
This gesture looks exactly as it sounds. When you need to make a strong or precise point, you simply move the palm of your dominant hand vertically in a swift yet rigid motion indicating a slice. Van Edwards believes that this effective gesture can be “used to demonstrate a tough stance on a point.”
Derek adds “The Karate Chop should be your go-to move for your strongest points. As to say, ‘This is how it’s going to be – and not the other way’.’”
When you want someone to pause or stop talking, simply show your open palm with your arm extended. However, make sure you use this only when necessary as it can offend the other person. Vanessa Van Edwards says “You can do this while anyone is speaking and they will almost instantly be quiet. I was with a CEO once, and he had the habit of doing it to his employees when he was done listening. It was horribly offensive.”
However, Derek Halpren believes “It adds great impact to your communication when you want to say – No! Stop. Wait. Hold on. It’s an instant attention-grabber.” But, he warns “Don’t overuse it. You want to make sure what comes after is important.”
This is one of the most powerful hand gestures that is widely used by leaders and speakers. Also known as the “we” gesture, it involves opening your arms in a motion that indicates you are wrapping your audience in an embracing hug. The move shows that you are including everyone present in the audience.
Van Edwards explains “This gesture can be used whenever you are speaking in a group or to an audience. 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 you have it.
These are the 17 most important and best hand gestures used by successful leaders across the world. However, this is not a comprehensive list. Apart from the ones mentioned here, there are many other effective hand gestures you can use or maybe you are already using without even realizing it.
A word of caution
Before you start using these and other hand gestures to make your point to your audience, keep in mind that different gestures and body languages mean different things in different cultures. Although some hand gestures are universal, some of these gestures can carry completely different meanings in certain parts of the world.
Here are some other things you need to keep in mind, according to entrepreneur Derek Halpren:
- Don’t point too aggressively as it can be demeaning to your audience
- Never point or bring your hands near your groin area
- Don’t do the same gesture repeatedly. Use a variety of hand gestures
- If you are holding something in your hand while speaking or making a presentation, put it aside.
- Do not use irrelevant gestures. Your body language and gestures must match what you’re saying.
Why should you use hand gestures
Did you know that gesturing is considered a “second language” that we use to communicate? According to the Huffington Post, motions of the hand can convey information that may not be delivered through speech. Author Annie Murphy Paul says “Research demonstrates that the movements we make with our hands when we talk constitute a kind of the second language, adding information that’s absent from our words. It’s learning’s secret code: Gesture reveals what we know. It reveals what we don’t know.”
When used effectively, hand gestures help you to draw the attention of the listeners. According to a study conducted by Spencer Kelly, associate professor of Psychology, Director of the Neuroscience Program, and co-director of the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University, gestures and motion can make the listeners more focused and be more aware of the acoustics of speech.
The study, published by the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), points out that when your audience views a hand gesture, their “auditory system expects to also hear speech. But this is not what the researchers found in the case of manual actions on objects.”
Spencer Kelly says “Our results provide a glimpse into this past relationship by showing that gestures still have a tight and perhaps special coupling with the speech in present-day communication. In this way, gestures are not merely add-ons to language – they may actually be a fundamental part of it.”
Moreover, when we use hand gestures while talking, it allows us to communicate faster and more effectively. It also helps the listeners to remember what we have said.
Hand gestures make communication impactful
By now, we have understood how crucial gestures are for making communication more effective and understandable. But how can using hand gestures make certain speakers more influential? Does this mean gestures can help to change people’s perceptions? Science says yes.
A 2014 study titled ‘How gesture works to change our minds’ by Susan Goldin-Meadow, found that “gestures we see others produce have the potential to change our thoughts.” Moreover, gestures, when used properly, can even help learners have a better learning experience. The paper states “Learners are more likely to profit from instruction when it is accompanied by gesture than when that same instruction is not accompanied by a gesture.”
But how can hand gestures influence the minds of the audience? Goldin-Meadow adds “Gestures are produced in space and could emerge from visuospatial thinking. Speakers are, in fact, likely to gesture when talking about things that are spatial or imageable and when conveying information that has been acquired visually as opposed to verbally.”
She concludes that “gesture promotes transfer of knowledge better than action, and suggests that the beneficial effects gesture has on learning may reside in the features that differentiate it from the action. They not only reflect thought, but they also have the potential to change thought in both listeners and speakers.”
Practice makes perfect
Now that you know which particular hand gestures can help you make your point and influence your audience the way you intend to, make sure you practice your gestures along with your speech.
Our words, along with our gestures and body language can say a lot about who we are. This can not only help to express ourselves effectively, but it can also impact how others perceive us. When we use smart, confident and positive gestures, people become more attentive and focused on hearing what we are saying. It makes us appear more confident, successful and influential.
How we talk determines how much people want to hear us. And your gestures can make a huge difference in the way you talk. But make sure you don’t go overboard with your gestures.
Go ahead and let your hands speak.
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