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Thumbs up is perhaps the most common of hand gestures and one that has been used for thousands of years. The signal for approval or agreement is commonly found European and American cultures as a sign of approval or that things are going according to plan. The gesture is so prevalent that it is a common emoji and is commonly used in social media and customer service ratings to indicate satisfaction.
However, in many Islamic and Asian countries, it is considered a major insult. In Australia, the gesture also means all is fine unless the user moves it up and down which transfers the gesture to an insult.
The thumbs down gesture is also commonly used in America, but less so in many other countries. The gesture obviously means the opposite of “thumbs up”, however in many cultures it is considered to be very rude and arrogant.
How to Speak With Your Hands
Before we get into the top hand gestures you can use, let’s talk about using your hands appropriately:
Use your hand gestures responsibly. Safe gesturing only please!
Stay in the box. I never want you to think in the box, but I do want you to gesture within the box. Appropriate hand-speaking space is from the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist. If you go outside this box, it’s seen as distracting and out of control. Here’s the difference:
There is a spectrum. Hand gestures are great up to a certain point. I call this the Jazz Hands Spectrum:
Make your gestures purposeful. Just like you bullet point a pitch or presentation, do the same with gestures. The best TED Talkers used their hands purposefully to explain important points. Use the list below to guide you.
Know what you want to say. If you have a big speech coming up, prepare your words; otherwise, your gestures can try to overcompensate. According to Elena Nicoladis, a researcher at the University of Alberta who studies hand gestures, people who have trouble finding the right words are more likely to speak with their hands.
The smoother, the better. We love fluid hand gestures. Jerky and robotic prepared moves are distracting. Practice speaking with your hands until it feels and looks natural.
Film yourself. Film yourself chatting with someone on the phone. You might be surprised what kinds of gestures you use—and how many you use—during the conversation. Then, film your speeches and elevator pitch. Have a friend give you feedback on your gestures.
Be careful cross-culturally. Not all hand gestures are created equal! Here is a fun video on the meaning of hand gestures around the world:
What to do now
I know I just gave you a comprehensive list of what not to do. But then what do you do?
Here is a list of three things to do to improve your gestures when presenting.
1. Awareness: pay attention to what you are doing with your hands.
2. Replacement: Any time you notice a gesture that you don’t like pull your hands to your side.
3. Be all in: Once your hands are to your side, go to your topic. If you are telling a story, re-live it. If you are talking about a computer code, then visualize the code, and if you are talking about neurons, visualize the neurons in front of you as you talk about them. At the Magnetic Delivery Boot Camp, we have a whole segment on what to do with your hands, what we covered here is just a starter.
About This Article
Co-authored by: Dan Klein Improvisation Coach This article was co-authored by Dan Klein. Dan Klein is an improvisation expert and coach who teaches at the Stanford University Department of Theater and Performance Studies as well as at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Dan has been teaching improvisation, creativity, and storytelling to students and organizations around the world for over 20 years. Dan received his BA from Stanford University in 1991. This article has been viewed 69,031 times. 2 votes – 50% Co-authors: 15 Updated: February 18, 2022 Views: 69,031 Categories: Communication Skills
Talking With Your Hands Rule #3: Thou Shalt Not Cross Arms All the Time
As a speaker, open body language makes you more approachable and closed body language makes you less approachable.
Open body language makes you more approachable
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Growing up, I always noticed that when my dad was upset and did not want us to talk to him, he crossed his arms and sat on the couch. No one in the family dared to speak to him. You have probably had similar experiences with parents growing up.
As a result, I am conditioned to worry when I see people with crossed arms, and most likely, so are you.
Yes, I agree that we should be more enlightened and not read too much into other’s behavior. But we are all humans, and we can’t help it. Now as a speaker, you need to be aware of how your body language affects others reactions and remove anything that might distract them from your message.
Try not to fold your arms even if you are thinking or waiting for a speaker. If you catch yourself with folded arms, just open them up, and soon you will pick up a habit of maintaining open body language.
The Come Here gesture
In the US and some other English speaking countries curling the index finger toward the palm of the hand is used to summon someone towards you. In movies the gesture is frequently used by a female character as a way of tempting a man.
However, in other countries this gesture is also called the dog call and as the name implies should not be used to summon humans. Using the gesture in the Philippines it is one of the most offensive gestures that can result in the user’s arrest of even having his finger broken as a punishment. The Japanese also consider the gesture to be rude. In Singapore the gestures is used to mean “death”.
The Big Five
There are five main types of gestures that are appropriate for public speaking and they’re appropriate because you see them every day. In fact, I’d wager you don’t even realize you do them all the time.
- Descriptive gestures – These are the gestures you use to describe a thing or a situation. Fish tales are usually punctuated with descriptive gestures. (“You should have seen the one that got away!”) You might also use descriptive gestures to describe how something moves.
- Emotional gestures – These are the gestures you use to describe a feeling. For example, if you’re describing someone who’s depressed, you might slump your shoulders. If you’re describing being afraid, you might cower. Emotional gestures are great because when you use them, you appear more genuine.
- Symbolic gestures – These are the gestures you use to indicate words, numbers or position. Some say anytime you’re communicating a number under five, you should use your fingers because it offers a natural visual that reinforces the number. Other examples of symbolic gestures are giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down and giving the finger. (But don’t do that in your presentation!)
- Suggestive gestures – These are the gestures you use to suggest emotion, even when it’s not spoken. They’re similar to emotional gestures because they usually involve more of your body than just your hands. An example of a suggestive gesture is crossing your arms to suggest apathy.
- Prompting gestures – These are the gestures you use to encourage others to do the same. Unlike the previous four, these probably aren’t gestures you use in everyday conversation, unless you go around telling people “Raise your hand if…” (and you raise your hand first to encourage your listener to raise their hand too).
Bonus tip: Pointing is a terrible gesture! Don’t ever point—to yourself and certainly not to anyone else. Use an open palm instead.
Natural Gestures Versus The Robot
Gesturing is a natural communication tool. In a study conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, researchers found that children who use more hand gestures at 18 months old have greater language abilities later on. Another study showed people are naturally inclined to listen more closely to people who people who use hand gestures.
When it comes to public speaking, gesturing is as important as good eye contact and an even voice. But for some reason, a lot of people suddenly forget how to gesture once they’re put in front of an audience. They find it difficult to gesture appropriately and at the right time. What ends up happening is their gestures during public speaking look deliberate and unnatural.
A sincere gesture involves the entire body and should have a facial expression to match. Consider the body language of someone you meet up with who hasn’t seen you in a while. Their arms are outstretched as they walk towards you to greet you with a warm hug. Do they approach you with a scowl on their face? Probably not.
Perfecting Public Speaking
In summary, remember that hand movements can be the most effective accompaniment you could use to emphasize the points of your talk, and to connect better with your audience. There are some gestures you should definitely use, like the open palms gesture, and there are some you should avoid, such as pointing. If you’re ready to really get serious about speaking, you can contact the London Image Institute, and embark on the path to vastly improved public speaking.