Using Gestures to Add Power to Public Speaking

70 handshake demoWritten by Anett Grant for Fast Company

Grant is the president and founder of Executive Speaking, Inc. She has coached top executives for over 36 years, with clients including PepsiCo, Toyota, 3M, Hewlett-Packard, Medtronic, Novartis, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, and General Electric.

For many people, public speaking is so fraught with anxiety that they give little thought to how they should gesture to help get their point across.

While it’s true that gestures can add power to your speaking, you must use them purposefully in order to maximize that power. Having worked with hundreds of leaders on their gestures, I’d like to share insights that will help you answer the most basic question—what should you do with your hands?

I’ll explain why effective gesturing requires you to “Flow,” (use your whole body) “Zoom,” (think about where you want your audience to focus) and “Imagine” (an image of the concept you’re talking about).


One of the challenges you face when gesturing is that you need to think about the flow of your entire body. You have to get your body involved with your gestures; you can’t just move your hands limply from your wrists.

Just as you need to get your entire body involved when swinging a golf club, a tennis racket, or a baseball bat, you need to get your whole body involved when making effective gestures. Think of your gestures as hitting your ideas—the more you control the movement, the more precision you’ll have in terms of how you target your message.


For gestures to increase your impact, you must keep in mind the focus of your audience. Whenever you watch someone speak, you are watching from a particular perspective. If the speaker is absolutely still, the audience will focus on the face. If the speaker’s face is particularly still, the audience will focus on the eyes. It’s like your audience’s brain is a camera zooming in and out, focusing on the most dynamic source of visual stimuli.

So where do you want the audience to focus? If you gesture, the audience will zoom out to either a chest shot or a whole body shot, depending on how big your gesture is. On the other hand, if you want your audience to be close up, laser-focused on your message, you should be still. The most effective presenters are able to maximize their audience’s attention by adjusting those focal points. By juxtaposing gestures and stillness, you can orchestrate the audience’s attention and add tremendous power to your speaking.


Finally, you’ll maximize the impact of your gestures by thinking about an image of the concept you’re trying to communicate. By focusing on this mental image, you will naturally gesture with power and purpose.

For example, as you discuss shrinking your sales cycle, think about a mental image of shrinking. With the right level of concentration, you will naturally place your hands far apart, and slowly bring them closer together. The key here is for this movement to happen naturally, not mechanically.

When I teach my clients how to gesture, I’m really teaching them how to imagine pictures of their ideas and to focus on those pictures, as opposed to where to put their hands. The more I help my clients focus on their mental pictures, the better their gestures become.

What’s best about this approach is that not only do you develop powerful gestures, you will have lively, spontaneous expressions and you will begin speaking in a conversational style, keeping your audiences more engaged.

By capitalizing on the power of Flow, Zoom, and Imagine—in meetings, in the client’s office, and in the boardroom—you will truly be able to use gestures to power up your speaking.

For more on gestures and public speaking, take a look at this past blog post!

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