Do you know how to speak with your hands?

Holler and Beatie found that gestures increase the value of our spoken message by 60%! The best, most charismatic speakers and influencers know the importance of using hand gestures.

Leaders use specific hand gesture patterns.

Science of People analyzed thousands of hours of TED talks and found one striking pattern: The most viral TED Talkers spoke with their words AND their hands.

Specifically, we analyzed the top and bottom TED Talks of all time, ranked according to their view count.

We analyzed TED talks for hand gestures.

I don’t know what to do with my hands

Not sure what to do with your hands? You are not alone! Sometimes it can be awkward to talk with your hands in a natural way. My goal is to teach you purposeful hand gestures you can use naturally.

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! 

The TED research shocked us and brought up tons of questions:

  • Why are hand gestures so important?
  • What are the most popular hand gestures?
  • How can everyone use their hand gestures to go viral?

We broke down all of the most popular TED Talks and major speeches from the last five decades and synthesized them into the top 20 hand gestures you can use. But first, some background + a fun video:

Science Facts About Hand Gestures

  • You’re born to speak with your hands. 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. Check out this adorable baby using hand gestures to the Itsy Bitsy Spider:
  • 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.”
  • We can’t help it. Hand gestures come to us naturally. Spencer even found that blind people use hand gestures when speaking with other blind people.
  • 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.

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How to Speak With Your Hands

Before we get into the top hand gestures you can use, let’s talk about using your hands appropriately:

Use your hand gestures responsively. Safe gesturing only please!

Stay in the box. I never want you to think in the box, but I do want you to 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. Here’s the difference:

This figure demonstrates the appropriate space your hand gestures should be in.

There is a spectrum. Hand gestures are great up to a certain point. I call this the Jazz Hands Spectrum:

This chart shows the ideal range of hand gestures, from being stiff to jazz hands. The ideal is in the middle where there is a balance.

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. Use the list below to guide you.

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.

Be careful cross-culturally. Not all hand gestures are created equal! Here is a fun video on the meaning of hand gestures around the world:

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20 Hand Gestures You Should Be Using

After observing some of the best speakers and speeches in the world, we have collected our favorites for you to try. We put together some GIFs of the most popular ones. Remember, think about your verbal content and match your hand gestures to what you are saying:

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Listing

This hand gesture uses fingers to represent numbers.

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.

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A Tiny Bit

A tiny bit hand gesture demonstrates something small or tiny.

Any time you want to emphasize a small point like something that they shouldn’t take too seriously or a small addition, show it! This is my favorite itty-bitty hand gesture:

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Listen Up!

The listen up hand gesture uses both hands and is a powerful way to command attention.

This is a very strong gesture, so use it with caution. It is a “bottom line” hand gesture or “listen here” movement. The sound and motion draws attention and lets people know: “What I am about to say is important!”

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I’m Determined!

Any time you have a solid fist–shaking it at someone or punching it in the air you are showing intensity. Use it alongside a VERY important point. Be careful when using this gesture with an irritated voice, because it can come off as anger!

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Everything

Want to make a big grand gesture? Then, the “everything” gesture is your go-to. It is as if you are sweeping across all of the ideas to be inclusive.

This everything hand gesture uses both hands and is a powerful way of "sweeping" your ideas across.

Alternate: This can also be used to say you are wiping the slate clean or pushing something out of the way.

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Small, Medium, Large

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. For example, you can use the high version along with “It’s a pretty big deal” or the low version with “He’s low man on the totem pole”.

This hand gesture shows size difference depending on where the hand is placed.

Alternate: You can also use this as you talk about different stages, as an alternative to listing. For example, you could say, “We start with your vision” (low level), “then move on to your structure,” (medium level) and “we end most importantly on your finished product.”

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I’ve Got My S*** Together

This is one of Kevin O’Leary’s (from Shark Tank) favorites. 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. These days, everyone is trying it out.

This hand gesture with both hands forming a "bridge" and with fingertips touching demonstrates control and dominance.

Special Note: 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. It is similar to the prayer gesture. Anyone else experience this?

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Let Me Tell You

This hand gesture shows that you have something to say.

Pointing should be used with caution. We don’t like to be pointed at because it can be seen as accusatory or invasive. However, you can point to get someone’s attention or to literally make a point. For example, this gesture goes along well with:

  • “You know, I just remembered something important.”
  • “This one’s important.”
  • “Let me tell you something.”

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Just a Part

This gesture can be used to demonstrate a very specific part of an idea. When you are talking about an aspect of something, this gesture can indicate that it is separate.

This hand gesture shows a part of something out of the whole idea.

Alternate: You can also use this gesture while turning your hand to indicate a change in perspective: Along with “it really changed my mind from ___ to ___.”

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I Am Magnanimous

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.

QUICK TIP:

Here are a few ways to implement these gestures:

  • First, try out 1 or 2 at a time. Too many at once is overwhelming.
  • Second, I would use them on the phone first–where no one can see you–so you can practice and try without being worried about how you look.

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Growth

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.

Special Note: If you are an entrepreneur, you have to constantly show skyrocketing growth to investors. Often, this comes in the shape of a hockey stick chart–the one with a huge curve as time goes on. You can do this with your hands while you are speaking in a way to show (not tell) growth!

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You

Any time you gesture into someone else’s space or personal area, you tie them to your words. I like to do this with the open hand or palm instead of pointing to be more formal. Pointing is very aggressive. You can do the “you” gesture to make someone feel included or to highlight that something you are talking about applies to the person you are speaking with. It’s a great attention grabber if someone’s mind is wandering.

Special Note: Be sure to do this purposefully. I once was standing next to a woman who was overweight, and the man we were speaking with was talking about Fast Food and kept gesturing at her. She started to back away! It was an incredibly subconscious (and offensive) gesture.

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Me

Any time we bring our hands in towards our heart or chest, we usually want to indicate to ourselves. I have even heard sneaky speaking coaches tell candidates to point towards themselves when talking about anything positive… use it carefully!

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This and That

Whenever you want to separate two different ideas or things, you can use your hands to symbolically represent them. For example, I might say we are totally different from them, using my left hand when I say “we” and my right hand when I say “them.” This is a great way to put distance between two things.

Advanced: If you want to try something really advanced, you can use your hands to represent two different ideas. For example, if I was talking about Democrats and Republicans I could use and raise my left hand when talking about Democratic ideas and actions, and elevate and emphasize with my right hand when talking about Republican ideology and actions. This is both captivating and easier for the audience.

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Come Together

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.

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It’s Just So

You can use your palms vertically with a rigid slicing motion to demonstrate the need for precise measurement or to separate two things.

Alternate: This can also be used to demonstrate a tough stance on a point.

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I’m Not Hiding Anything

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 that you are laying it all out on the table.

Alternate: When your palms face upward with fingers spread, it means you need something.

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You Listen to Me

The palms-down position shows power and dominance–it’s not very positive, but it is commanding. If you have a very strong directive or order you can use it. Be careful not to use this gesture by default! Hands should be facing up, out, or vertical when speaking. Always having them in the down position is very dominant.

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Stop

When you flash your palm at someone, you want them to pause or stop. You can do this while anyone is speaking and they will almost instantly be quiet (use in emergencies only!). 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.

Alternate: You can also do this when asking a question–it’s a universal attention grabber.

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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.

Bonus: Complete List

Want a super complete list? Wikipedia has a surprisingly good list of hand gestures that might be helpful. Remember this list is not curated, so use them purposefully.

Practicing with Hand Gestures

I hope that you got some great ideas for hand gestures in this post. Practice them with:

If you truly want to connect and understand people, they will remember you and feel good about being with you. This is all related to influence.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

27 replies on “20 Hand Gestures You Should Be Using and Their Meaning”

  1. Dellani Oakes

    I’ve noticed that a lot of speakers do a fist with the thumb slightly up (look at any politician) Sort of thrust forward, swooping up. Didn’t see it here. (Saw Tiger’s, not the same thing) That one bugs me. I’m curious why it’s used.
    In fact, the hands in the chest to waist position bothers me, too. To me it looks artificial and staged. Then again, I’m a big gesture speaker. My arms and hands are always going, even when I’m talking on the phone. Can’t seem to speak without my hands.

  2. MARTIN

    Interesting stuff. I was watching people talk and noticing their spontaneous hand gestures, wondering whether they were uniform between people, or perhaps even across cultures. Would love to run an experiment filming people, not professional actors, talk a script into a telephone and compare gestures versus the words and meaning. And run translations in other languages. Could one go the other way and infer meaning from the gestures in any precise way, and might the deaf community know more about such a possibility?

    1. Roger Manning, Ph.D.

      Gestures are not universal across cultures. Assuming that can get you into trouble. They can mean very different things.

  3. Veeyah

    I’ve been on the site for more than two hours now and I can’t get enough of your content! My interest has just shot from a 50 to a 200. Great stuff and well-researched! Will definitely be checking out your classes. Something to invest in for 2017.

  4. Louise Birch

    Just discovered this post when researching for an assignment working on – extremely fascinating – useful insight as I know I gesticulate a lot and conscious of it in meetings – always saw it as a negative – although now need to take advice to see how jazzy my hands are and learn some of the powerful gestures can include! Thank you.

  5. Vanessa:
    Liked your video. As a communication expert, I am always talking to my clients about the importance of gestures; how they (gestures) can make or break a message. I liked your point about incorporating them into an elevator pitch. You don’t see that very often; most coaches don’t really help their clients learn how to add gestures to their pitch. Yet, it is an excellent way to support your pitch and make it memorable. Since most people are not auditor learners, combining gestures with a great, easy to understand pitch can make you a winner!
    Peggy Bud, Speaking Skillfully

  6. Lori

    I work with students who range in ability from Moderately Cognitively Impaired to Severely Multiply Impaired. We already use a lot of sign language with them because so many are non-verbal or very limited. I have been told by friends and family that I’ve always been a “hand-talker,” but now even more so! I have also heard (third person) that I am fascinating, approachable, and passionate. Gestures talk. 🙂 If this works for someone who’s really NOT all that, it can help anyone.

  7. Marshall

    Great information. We all recognise all of them but it is difficult to put them into action in a conversation. Is there a drill, or a practice method to get more comfortable with using these naturally?

  8. Eleanor McCrary

    Awesome! I can’t wait to improve my connection using hand gestures. I also find that when I use more hand gestures, I also feel more engaged in the conversation I’m having and what
    I’m saying.

  9. Richard

    Hello,all these gestures are meant for a better communication,but they can’t convince people that got used to them anymore.Therefore it is advisable to invent some other means for a better contact with those who are more susceptible to act accordingly.

  10. Andrew

    Hi Vanessa, as always I love what you have to say. I’d just like to say one thing about staying in the box. An exception to this is when you are on stage talking to a large audience. A small gesture will not be seen at the back of the room. A large gesture will appear small. For example, when you take the applause position you extend your hands right out often starting from the center of the body. I’ve used this on a number of occasions and you get an instant applause. You have to tell the audience what to do otherwise the response can be weak and uncertain. A positive communication will be met with a positive response.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi Shaurya, great question! Hand gestures have been proven to increase memorability and comprehensibility, so they are an excellent add-on in both business and personal environments. I recommend starting to practice a few in ‘low-pressure’ settings, like hanging out with family and friends, then start incorporating a few into the work environment, like during a presentation or meeting with colleagues!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

  11. Lauren Freeman

    My classes tend to require a lot of in-class presentations where I usually stand behind a podium and “hide” while I present. Knowing these, and understanding which ones to use in certain settings, will definitely give me a sense of confidence when presenting in the future – whether it’s for class, and interview, or even around friends! It’s very interesting because a lot of these are universal and used in Deaf Culture/ American sign language as well, so I recognize the meanings of quite a few of these hand gestures from using them as I sign. Very cool!!

    1. Andrew

      Hi Lauren, come out, come out wherever you are. Don’t hide, your audience will love you. When people hide behind the podium or use it as a barrier between you and them, the audience knows. Walk into the audience. Look over the audience in a figure of 8 pattern so you can meet each and everyone. It will become more personal and more engaging. You will start feeling like you are talking on a one to one basis and you will really connect. I know it will feel so nervous the first time but you can do it. I know you can just from your post on here saying you will use Vanessa’s tips and have a sense of confidence.

  12. Liam Hayes

    Very interesting stuff! I think I’ll give the “listen up” gesture a try and use it whenever I’m making an important point.

  13. Andrew

    My favorite hand gesture is definitely the solid fist because it shows passion and that you truly stand by any point that you are making

    1. Bella Perennis

      Yeah, totally. The list made it easier for me to pick some and train them. It still looks a little rough when I use some of the new ones.

  14. AliceM

    Vanessa, I love your videos. Thank you so much for your research and for posting the information. You have wonderful facial expressiveness. Do you have any videos or tips about that? Thank you!

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