What to do with your hands during a presentation

'When really charismatic leaders use hand gestures, the brain is super happy'

Preparing to speak in front of an audience involves enough hand wringing without having to think about what to actually do with said hands.

Most people have been taught to avoid moving their hands too much while presenting, but research shows that using your hands can actually better engage the crowd.

The most-watched TED talks, with an average of 7.4 million views, include an average of 465 hand gestures. In contrast, the least-watched videos (with just 124,000 average views) averaged only 272 hand gestures.

"When really charismatic leaders use hand gestures, the brain is super happy," says Vanessa Van Edwards, a consultant who studied the TED talks. "Because it's getting two explanations in one, and the brain loves that."

The Washington Post's "On Leadership" team spoke with body language experts and speech coaches to determine the best ways to use your hands during a presentation.

Use the hand movements descriptively. If you're discussing something small, pinch your fingers. If you're talking about a number below five, hold up the correct number of fingers.

"It helps people remember the number; it helps us believe the word. It's a way we underline, like a nonverbal highlighter, the word people should remember," says Van Edwards.

Open your palms to build trust.  Making outstretched gestures has an evolutionary underpinning.

"If I'm showing open palms, it signals to everybody that I've got nothing to harm you and I'm exposed," says Mark Bowden, president of a communications training firm.

Limit your movements to the strike zone. Don't get too wild with your gestures—try to keep them between your shoulders and hips.

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Avoid pointing and the "Clinton Thumb." Pointing and a fist with the thumb on top of it come off as aggressive.

If you don't know what to do, let your hands fall to your sides. "It's like home base for our arms" and serves as a reset button, says Jerry Weissman, a corporate presentations coach.

Don't draw attention to your groin. Instead of clasping your hands in front of you, allow them to fall to your sides.

Mix up your hand movements. Just as you mix up the length of sentences in your speech, be sure to vary your gestures too. "When you do anything in a repetitive pattern, [the audience] is gone. It's boring," says Gina Barnett, an executive communications coach.

Don't hold things. "People fidget, and they're often clueless to what they're doing," says Barnett.

Show your hands. If you're at a podium, either gesture with your hands or lightly rest them on the top. If you're right in front of the audience, make sure not to hold your hands behind your back.

Don't try to create a branded hand gesture. German Chancellor Angela Merkel often holds her hands in front of her, making an inverted triangle with her fingers. This may work for her, but such gestures can "feel sort of stagey" or tense to the audience, says Barnett (Tan/McGregor, "On Leadership," Washington Post, 11/17).


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