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Top ten hand gestures to avoid when you speak

Ginger Leadership Communications

Stand up in front of people to give a speech or presentation and you’ll notice something funny happen with your hand gestures. Those two implements on the end of your arms, usually your faithful servants, suddenly feel like sweaty, awkward lumps. So how can you use hand gestures for good, not evil?

“I just don’t know what to do with my hands when I’m speaking!” public speaking clients often comment to me. And the result is a series of embarrassing hand gestures that totally take our attention away from your message as a speaker.

What can you do about it? First of all, become aware of what your hands are doing when you speak in public. To help you, here I’ve put together a list of my Top 10 Grim Gestures to avoid. Which ones do you do?

The Top Ten Things NOT to do with your hands when you speak.

10 – The Jab: Too much pointing is rarely received well by an audience. Whether it’s pointing directly at people, or jabbing into your hand, it comes across as aggressive or accusatory gesture.

9 – The Tony Blair: “Education, education, education” and the accompanying hand slicing gesture. Whilst this gesture is controlled and powerful, fans of the ‘naughties’ will notice we’re in a new decade. Audiences are looking for empathy and The Tony Blair is no longer a gesture that carries a message of authenticity. Avoid if you want to seem genuine.

8 – Quick, Hide! I often see new speakers try to hide themselves due to nerves. They might pull on their sleeves and tops to cover a little bit more skin. Guess what? The audience will still be able to see you anyway! Forget your clothes and take the floor with pride.

7 – The Laurel & Hardy: Unless you’re acting out a story, or a thought process, scratching the top of your head with your hands will give your audience the impression you don’t quite know what you’re talking about.

6 – The Comforter: A grim gesture especially for the girls with lovely long hair. In an alien or intimidating situation it’s natural you’d like to feel safe, but give yourself that feeling by preparing well for your talk, rather than stroking your long hair, or running your hand along your arm.

5. Clapping & slapping: Whilst a well-placed hand clap can add emphasis to your main points, it can also become a distraction if you don’t pull it off well. This could be hand clapping, or – often – unintended hitting of your hand against your side or knees. Distracting. If you want some applause, wait until you’ve finished.

4. The Lifeline: Many speakers rely on notes as a lifeline for talks they’re unfamiliar with, or as an excuse to avoid having to use hand gestures effectively. In reality, you will need your notes far less than you imagine and they become a barrier between you and your audience. Put them down and free up your hands for masterful gestures.

3. The Wringer: One of the most common Grim Gestures in business, this is holding your hands together and massaging the palms with each other. Great for a masseur warming up, but to your audience you come across as tense, indecisive and possibly a touch aggressive.

2. The 10 second itch: Of all the weird and wonderful ways adrenaline plays with our hand gestures when we’re nervous, itching and scratching must be the most distasteful. I’ve seen speakers almost scratch holes into their necks, arms (etc) in moments of high stress. What should you do about it? First, notice what you’re doing. You’ll realise, if you pause for a moment, that there’s a repetitive action going on here and it’s beginning to hurt! Then, relax your hands. Breathe some oxygen into them and place your hands – calmly – somewhere they can do no harm. Now you can use your gestures for good, not evil.

1. Fly Swatting: And finally, holding the number 1 spot is the classic Fly Swatting hand gesture. There is nothing more grim than fairy, flouncy hand gestures that continue on and on and on, no matter what the speaker is saying. The key here is power. If your hand gestures are weak, your authority as a speaker will be weak and thus the message you’re trying to get across will be weakened (whether it’s a sales pitch, a training programme or a wedding speech, we all have a message).

Concentrate on making your hand gestures definite, and appropriate to your message, rather than too general. To work on your hand gestures, start to study public speakers as you come across them. Who has power as a speaker? Who fails to keep your attention? How do hand gestures contribute to this?

More information on how to use your body for good when you speak? 

You betcha! If you’re eager to become a more inspiring speaker and keep your body in check, Ginger has a multitude of courses just right for you! From freebies to e-courses, books to workshops, jump in to Ginger. Click here for a full list of Ginger courses and resources.

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