Everyone “talks” with their hands at least sometimes. Some people’s hand-talking or gesturing matches their message well. Other people have a tendency to make overly large gestures that can be distracting. And still others don’t use their hands much at all. No matter which camp you fall into, it’s important to pay attention to your hand gestures while you are communicating or making a presentation. You may be unconsciously communicating in ways you don't realize. Many gestures are universal across cultures and geographies. Here are some examples.
Using no hand gestures: If you don't use your hands at all, that may be perceived as indifference. Your audience may feel that you don't care about what you are talking about.
Hands hidden: If your audience can’t see your hands, it will be hard for them to trust you.
Hands open and your palms at a 45-degree angle: Communicates that you are being honest and open.
Hands open with palms down: Communicates that you are certain about what you are talking about.
Palms facing each other with your fingers together: Communicates that you have expertise about what you are talking about.
Hands grasped in front of you: Communicates that you are nervous or tentative, as does touching your face, hair, or neck.
Hand gestures that are larger than the outlines of your body: Communicates a large idea or concept. But if all your hand gestures are large you will communicate that you are chaotic or out of control.
Hand gestures can have cultural meanings: A few years ago, I was a speaker at a conference in Lisbon, Portugal. It was my first time in Portugal, and I became instantly enamored of the special custard pastries that Lisbon and Portugal are known for. One morning, I went into a bakery and ordered two of the pastries. I did so by holding up two fingers, similar to the “victory” or “peace” gesture in the United States. The person behind the counter proceeded to put three pastries in a box. I later learned that the gesture for two would have been to raise my thumb and index finger. Even though my thumb wasn’t showing, the person behind the counter thought I was signaling for three.
I was lucky that I didn’t get into more trouble than an extra pastry. Many hand gestures are not universal. Before speaking in a country or to a culture that you are not familiar with, do some research to find out which gestures in your presentation might be misunderstood, not understood at all, or offensive.
What do you think? Have you experimented with using hand gestures to communicating confidence and expertise?
Here's my favorite book on body language: The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead by Carol Kinsey Goman (2011).
And for more great tips for presenting and speaking see my book: 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People (2012).