Raise your hand: Guide to gestures when public speaking
Be right, even if you're a lefty, with this guide for gestures while public speaking
Hands: so useful, yet so problematic!
What to do with them? Shove them into pockets? Use them to clutch the sides of the lectern with last-lifeboat-off-the-Titanic fervor? Flick away invisible flies? Clench them into fists and pound for emphasis?
Standing in front of an audience of tens or millions, with nothing but a lectern for support, it’s hard to know what to do with those things that can feel like dead mackerel at the end of your wrists.
Wave them around too much and you risk being a southern European dictator or Leonard Bernstein. Be a little too enthusiastic in moving your fingers and you’re starring in a revival of “Oliver!” Leave them at your sides and you seem like a humanoid struggling with your emotions chip.
In this election season, with the vice presidential debate coming Tuesday and the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, plus numerous state and local contests to consider, it’s timely to ask what a person should do with his or her hands when speaking to a group.
What gestures are appropriate? Hold a prop or not? Keep them visible at all times? Deploy a pocket?
“The key is to be conversational,” said Lenny Laskowski, founder of LJL Seminars in Wilmington, North Carolina, which offers public speaking seminars. “We use our hands when we talk to people in normal conversation, so that’s something to aim for.”
Sue Woodworth, an instructor of speech at Colorado Mesa University, said that a generation ago, public speaking didn’t include gestures because they were thought to be distracting. Now, however, speaking without including hand gestures is perceived as stiff.
A 2003 study by Judith Holler and Geoffrey Beattie, researchers at the University of Manchester in England, found that “one communicative function of gesture may be the facilitation of inferences that listeners have to make when information is only implicitly provided. In other words, the gestures in these cases might provide the recipient with semantic cues as to what the correct inferences are.”
However, Woodworth said, the gestures need to be appropriate and take into account the cultural sensibilities of those who might be in the audience. For example, the OK sign, with index finger and thumb forming a circle and the other fingers arrayed behind it, is fine in the United States, but considered obscene in many other countries.
Laskowski said that there are nuances of meaning to each gesture. Gestures with the palms up are perceived as trustworthy, he said, whereas palms-down gestures may be perceived as domineering, “like when parents are telling kids to settle down,” he said.
He advised keeping gestures at chest height, and when not gesturing a speaker should rest their hands lightly on the lectern rather than clutching its sides. Also, he encouraged resisting the impulse to shuffle papers or hold a prop such as a pen, which can be distracting.
The goal, he said, is that gestures seem like a natural extension of what is being said, a symbiotic complement to facial expression and posture.
“You worry about absolutely everything when you’re up in front of an audience,” Woodworth said. “I tell my students that you want to establish a rapport with your audience and to do that you need to look natural. When you have a conversation with your friends, you can’t tell me you stand there without doing anything with your hands, but none of (those gestures) are forced, so that’s always kind of a good rule of thumb.”
To assist in determining which gestures are right or wrong for a public speech, we offer this handy guide:
NO: HOOK ‘EM HORNS
Sure, George W. Bush repeatedly deployed the index and pinkie pointed skyward gesture — and at official events, no less! — but unless you are a University of Texas cheerleader, a Scandinavian satanist or Matthew McConaughey, let’s save this one for Ozzfest, midnight at the frat party or the chorus of “Enter Sandman.”
YES: THUMBS UP (CONDITIONALLY)
The thumbs up should bookend the speech. It is for walking onto or off the dais and should be deployed in this sequence: clap clap clap, point to someone you know in the audience while offering a winning smile, thumbs up. And what a tremendous gesture! So perky, like an exclamation mark perched above the resolute fist, a visible declaration of “Yes! We can do this!” It is Tom Cruise as Maverick on that famous “Top Gun” poster, all confidence and tower fly-bys.
The thumbs up has no place during the speech or debate, however, when it can come across as smug and self-satisfied. And in all instances, forsake its gibbering, simple-minded cousin, the double thumbs up. The double thumbs up is for liars trying to assure you the levee will hold. It won’t.
NO: FINGER GUNS, SINGLE OR DOUBLE
A single finger gun says “I’m 5 and you’re under arrest,” while double finger guns try to sell you a water bed then get you drunk on cheap chardonnay.
YES: THE CLINTON THUMB
You know the one, stolen from JFK and made famous by Bill: hand curled in a loose fist, bent index finger extended slightly beyond the other fingers, thumb resting on top of it. It is an emphatic gesture meant to take the place of accusatory, single-finger pointing.
Honestly, it’s a strange gesture. It seems like there should be a credit card clutched between the thumb and index finger and an admonishment of, “You’ll get this back, missy, when you can learn to be responsible!” But politicians seem to love it, so there you go.
NO: SINGLE-FINGER POINTING
This is no good. The single finger is too easily shaken in a mien of “tsk tsk,” it is too easily jabbed at invisible chests. The single finger says j’accuse! All it does is put audience members on the defensive: Hey, pal, I didn’t break the economy. Watch where you’re pointing that thing.
Plus, the old adage says that when you point a finger, three point back at you (the thumb, presumably, is just doing its own goofy thing). Maybe the solution is to point with all five fingers?
YES: SHIVA FINGERS (FOR LACK OF A BETTER NAME)
Named (just this moment, in fact) in honor of Hindu god Shiva, who sometimes is depicted with index finger and thumb forming a tight circle and the other three standing at tight attention beside it, enable a speaker to emphasize a point as if it is The Word. “Do not question what I have just proclaimed,” Shiva fingers say, “for it is Truth and I am the Bringer of Light.”
NO: RAISED FIST, SINGLE OR DOUBLE
The single raised fist is a very powerful gesture, yes, but also one that’s fraught with tremendous historic and cultural subtext. The single raised fist invades Czechoslovakia. It accepts your gold medal but not your status quo. It says light the fires and sound the horns. It dominates, it is strong, it’s coming for you. It’s very intimidating.
The double raised fists just won an MMA championship or completed a successful keg stand. Unless you are Rocky Balboa, best to avoid it.
YES: THE PENNY PINCHER
With this gesture, the thumb and index finger touch to form an elongated circle, while the other three fingers curl down beside the index. The point where the index and thumb come together, where it seems like a penny should be pinched, is jabbed for emphasis in the manner of a chicken pecking around the barnyard for stray grain.
It’s not great, but it’s better — as most things are — than single-finger pointing.
NO: THE HANG 10
Though President Obama has occasionally deployed it as a shout-out to his time at Punahou School in Honolulu, it’s best to leave this one at the shave ice stand. The hang 10 too easily says that you’ll get around to it maybe tomorrow, because today the waves are ‘ono, brah.
YES: THE SUPPLICANT
Generally deployed with both arms extended horizontally, hands palm up, the supplicant is an expansive gesture reminiscent of a Renaissance religious painting or Great Aunt Sylvia demanding a hug (which you never minded giving). The supplicant is an encompassing, we’re-all-in-this-together gesture that says “Help me out here, folks, I can’t do it without you.”
The supplicant has nothing to hide and engenders happy memories of fives gladly given. The supplicant doesn’t cheat and honestly, it doesn’t understand why or how anyone could. Trust the supplicant. Trust it.
NO: THE WESTSIDE
Ooh, probably not, but rest in peace, Tupac.
NO: THE A-OK
It’s not that this gesture isn’t perky, with the thumb and index finger forming a sprightly circle and the other three fingers arrayed in a sunburst behind it. It’s just that on land it’s kind of a dopey gesture you could imagine members of the Sunshine Family making, and underwater it’s for scuba divers to indicate everything is, indeed, A-OK.
YES: THE LIVE LONG AND PROSPER
Defy conventional wisdom as well as every political consultant in the world and spread those fingers in a proud Vulcan V! Through that space between the middle and ring fingers a universe of good ideas can fly, plus who wouldn’t love a candidate who wishes you long life and prosperity? Nobody, that’s who! And only a crazy person wouldn’t trust a Vulcan. They’re logical.
NO: THE DOG SILHOUETTE
Things have gotten pretty bad if you resort to shadow puppets. In that case, you probably should stop talking and sit down.
MAYBE: THE V
Talk about a loaded gesture! With index and middle finger raised in a V, Winston Churchill called for victory and a million flower children called for peace. Doubling down on the gesture, Richard Nixon declared himself not a crook.
Deploy with caution, and probably with more luck in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. You know why.
YES: THE BRIGHT IDEA (CAREFULLY DEPLOYED)
What a difference 90 degrees makes, since the bright idea is the single-finger point lifted into an “A-ha!” gesture. The bright idea says “If you remember nothing else from this evening, folks, remember this one crucial point.”
Be careful, though, because the bright idea can easily become the “we’re No. 1” if accompanied by a poop-eating grin, and the we’re No. 1 is only appropriate during the Final Four and certain NASCAR events.
NO: THE MULTI-FINGER STACK
Remember doing this on the playground in elementary school? Curling the middle finger over the index, the ring finger over the middle, the pinky over the ring? Wouldn’t it be awesome if a candidate suddenly declared, apropos of nothing, “Hey, look what I can do with my fingers!” Unhinged and not a little alarming, but still oddly awesome.