The best, most charismatic speakers and influencers know the importance of using hand gestures.
Leaders use specific hand gesture patterns.
Holler and Beattie found that gestures increase the value of our message by 60 percent!
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.
Specifically, we analyzed the most and least popular Ted Talks: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:
Crazy 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, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Colgate University and co-director of the school’s Center for Language and Brain, 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.
How to Speak With Your Hands:
Before we get into the top 20 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:
- There is a spectrum. Hand gestures are great up to a certain point. I call this the Jazz Hands Spectrum:
- Make your gestures purposeful. Just like you create bullet points for a pitch or presentation, do the same with hand 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, you may use gestures to overcompensate. According to Elena Nicoladis, an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s psychology department 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:
The Top 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:
The easiest and most basic hand gesture is numerical. ANY TIME you say a number, perform 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.
2. A Tiny Bit
Any time you want to emphasize a small point, such as something they shouldn’t take too seriously or a small addition–show it! This is my favorite itty bitty hand gesture:
3. Listen Up!
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!”
4. 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!
Want to make a 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.
- Alternative: This can also be used to say you are ‘Wiping the slate clean’ or pushing something out of the way.
6. Small, Medium, Large
This is a really easy one and can be used literally to 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.”
- Alternative: You also can use this as an alternative to listing as you talk about different stages. 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, with your finished product.”
7. I’ve Got My S*** Together
This is one of the favorites of Kevin O’Leary, one of the two original investors on the Shark Tank reality TV show. 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.
- 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?
8. Let Me Tell You
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 literally to 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.”
9. 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 it is separate.
- Alternative: You also can use this gesture while turning your hand to indicate a change in perspective: Along with “It really changed my mind from ___ to ___.”
10. I Am Magnanimous
When you have both of your hands apart and palms facing toward the audience, it is a very God-like pose. Use it when making a grand gesture.
Here’s a few ways to implement these gestures:
- First, try out one or two at a time. Too many at once is overwhelming.
- Second, I would use them first on the phone, where no one can see you, so you can practice without being worried about how you look.
Whenever you move your hand or gesture upward, you indicate some kind of growth or increase. This can be used to indicate the expected growth, excitement or direction of where something is headed.
- Special Note: If you are an entrepreneur, you constantly have to 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!
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 like in the picture below. 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. 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.
Any time we bring our hands in toward our heart or chest, we usually want to indicate to ourselves. I even have heard sneaky speaking coaches tell candidates to point toward themselves when talking about anything positive… use it carefully!
14. 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 ideas and actions. This is both captivating and easier for the audience.
15. Come Together
When you bring both of your hands together, it is a gesture of combining and is a great way to show two forces symbolically coming together as one. You even can mesh or fold your hands together to show complete togetherness.
16. 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.
- Alternative: This also can be used to demonstrate a tough stance on a point.
17. 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 you are laying it all out on the table.
- Alternative: When your palms face up with fingers spread, it means you need something.
18. 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.
When you flash your palm at someone, you want them to pause or stop. You can do this while anyone is speaking and they almost instantly will 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.
- Alternative: You also can do this when asking a question–it’s a universal attention-grabber.
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 also can 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:
- Your elevator pitch
- Your next presentation
- Sharing your ideas
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
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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