Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #7 — People Assign Meaning To Your Hand Gestures

Presenter holding hands up in the air
Hands far away from the body mean "big idea" or "I'm chaotic"!

Everyone “talks” with their hands to some extent. 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. 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 presenting, and perhaps try out some new ones. Some hand gestures are universal across all languages, geographies, and cultures:

Using no hand gestures at all — If you don’t use your hands at all when you are presenting that can 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 at all, it will be hard for them to trust you.

Hands open with palms up — If you gesture with your hands open and your palms up you are communicating that you are asking for something from the audience:

Man standing with hands open and palms up
Hands open, palms up means you are asking for something.

Hands open and your palms at a 45-degree angle  — communicates that you are being honest and open.

Woman with hands open at 45 degree angle
Hands open at 45 degree angle conveys openness and honesty


Hands open with palms down — Communicates that you are certain about what you are talking about.

Woman with palms down
Palms down communicates you are certain about what you are saying.

Hands at a 90-degree angle with your fingers together  — communicates that you have expertise about what you are talking about.

Woman with hands facing each other
Palms facing each other communicates you are an expert


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. (See the photo at the top of the post).

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 hand gestures during your presentations?

A great book on body language:

The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead by Carol Kinsey Goman (2011).



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2 Replies to “Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #7 — People Assign Meaning To Your Hand Gestures”

  1. I once red that people make handgestures just a little earlier then they speak because the gestures helps people by saying the right thing.

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