October 25, 2021

Three gestures even reticent speakers can (learn to) love

Gestures & Body Language , Public Speaking , Public Speaking Fear , Presentation Tips , Three Things

One of the joys of teaching public speaking is the variety of speaking styles we encounter at our school. In our Executive Seminar, students see rather quickly (we hope) that every style of speaking can be compelling—and that there's no need to adopt a style that doesn't suit you.

That said, every speaker—within their style—must find ways to lift their intensity at key moments, to make their points. For the most gregarious speakers, this might actually mean dialing it down. 

But for those with a reserved style, it usually means dialing the energy up, not always comfortable.

One simple way to add energy is with a gesture that supports your message. And though we always enjoy big, creative gestures and lots of body language to go with them, we can point out a few gestures that even the most conservative presenter can feel good about delivering.

Bringing up a hand on either side of the body is a simple way to differentiate between two ideas.

Three for every presenter

We've seen how these descriptive gestures can work for any speaker—and how they help make points more visual for audiences. These are gestures that can be subtle in their delivery and still be effective:

1. The differentiating gesture

This is an easy and elegant one to use when you have opposing ideas. To execute a differentiating gesture, you need only lift up a hand on either side of your body to show the two camps. For example:

You (lifting left hand): Some say we should serve chocolate ice cream.

You (lifting right hand): Others say only vanilla.

By doing so, you visually represent the two positions. And there's no magic about which hand goes first; whatever feels right for you. 

2. The changing quantity gesture

This a descriptive gesture that most people can manage with a fair amount of comfort. You're using one or both hands to depict a growing or diminishing number. Here are a couple of examples:

You (both hands come together in front of you, starting slightly wider than your shoulders): We need to shrink our dependence on shrink wrap.


You (right hand to your side, lifting up): Popcorn sales can increase 100 percent over the next two years.

3. The chop or cut

Good for emphasis, here's another gesture that tends to feel natural for most people. You simply chop one hand down into the palm of the other. For example:

You: With one simple change, (right hand karate chops palm of left hand) we can cut this expense in half.

If you're speaking at a lectern, remember it's still better to chop one hand into the other. First, it makes the gesture easier to see because it's above the lectern. And when you chop or pound a lectern that's holding a live microphone, you create an unpleasant noise.

To make any gesture more effective, find a way to keep your hands quiet when you're not using them for a purpose. If speaking from a lectern, you can grasp the sides and let your hands rise up. If speaking without one, try to let your arms relax by your sides and bring them up when you want to use them.

Bringing hands together or pulling them apart can be a comfortable way to depict a changing quantity.

Finding your comfort zone

Remember as you think about gestures: The goal is not to imitate a flight attendant showing the emergency exits. We're not suggesting you need a gesture for every sentence. Just a few, where they make sense and where they'll make your message resonate more strongly with the audience. 

Delivering gestures may feel out of a speaker's comfort zone—and when a speaker appears uncomfortable, the gestures aren't doing them or the audience any favors. This, however, is not a reason to avoid gestures if you've been reluctant to use them.

Instead, try these tips for getting more comfortable: 

  • Loosen up when doing a practice run. Throw in as many crazy gestures are you can think of with every part of your talk. Exaggerate the gestures. Find a few that feel (relatively) good and work on how to deliver them.
  • Challenge yourself to use just one descriptive gesture when you speak. Then, after you feel good about that, challenge yourself to use two. And so on.
  • Work on gradually making gestures larger and more definitive. Try to get your upper body involved in delivering them. This will bring an easy athleticism to your movements and make you appear confident and at ease.
  • Remind yourself: You're adding gestures not to bring glory to yourself but because gestures are helpful to the audience. What gesture can help the audience better understand your point? We find that when speakers see the value of making the extra effort, it can inspire them to take a few chances.

You can videotape yourself, practice in front of a mirror or—our favorite—ask a friend to watch your wild-and-crazy practice run and help you choose a few gestures that are working really well. 

Bringing the side of one hand down onto the palm of the other is a natural way to emphasize a point about cutting or stopping something.

Learn more

For more of our tips on how to gesture when presenting, look here.

Find our founder's golden rules for developing gestures as part of your distinctive speaking style.

For tips on how to apply these ideas when you're presenting at a conference table, check this out.

Share this article