10 Intentional Public Speaking Gestures

Preparing to speak publicly can be very stressful. Just getting the content ready can drain you.

I understand.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt “completely” prepared for any speaking engagement. For some reason, I always keep tweaking the message up until delivery.

Although content preparation takes time, so do your gestures on stage. I wish I could say that I’ve always done this. If I’m honest, I’ve probably failed to make gestures as much as I’ve succeeded with gestures (if not more).

To infuse intentionality in not only your content but also your gestures, you must intentionally and creatively work on them.

In my last post I shared 9 tips on public speaking for leaders. This post aims to provide 10 intentional gestures all public speakers should make on a regular basis. Take a look at a few of them and consider how your gestures can bolster the effectiveness of your communication.


1) Point Out Times Backwards

When referring to the past, point to your right, not your left. This is one of the most common errors over 80% of public speakers make.

What happens is we communicate time according to our minds and not the minds of our listeners. Remember that when you refer to the beginning of anything and point to your left, you send mixed messages to the audience and generate confusion.

2) Identify and Eliminate Redundant Gestures

Everyone is guilty of these gestures. We all make redundant gestures occasionally.

I’ll never forget one time after a speaking engagement, a man came up and talked with me for 10-15 minutes about the message. I thought, “Wow these people are encouraging and helpful.” But I didn’t know what was coming next.

He leaned over and said, “Did you know that I had to stop looking at you about 5 minutes in?” I said, “No. I didn’t. What happened.”

He said,

“You made a very distracting upward motion with your mouth every time you stopped to think and when you asked us a question. I thought you would stop but you wouldn’t quit. You really should stop doing that because it was terribly distracting and made me want to stop listening to you.”

After hearing this information, my heart sunk. Then I felt anger and frustration with this man for speaking to me that way. But after the initial shock, I realized that he wasn’t the problem. I was. My gestures were.

I focused so much on content preparation that I didn’t prepare adequately in other areas like my gestures. My facial movements frustrated and distracted this man and who knows how many others.

What are your repeated movements that frustrate those listening to you? Video helps here. Having a person or two evaluate you regularly can also help.

3) Move Away From the Podium or Pulpit

Many public speakers stand behind the podium the entire time. Some do this intentionally, but many do so because the podium is a crutch.

Try asking yourself why you are behind the podium? Then ask yourself where on the stage could you be that would better communicate your message.

4) Avoid Your Rings and Other Jewelry at All Costs

This tip connects to number two above but it deserves it’s own category. I’ve caught myself and seen many people spin their wedding ring while speaking.

What other jewelry do you wear? Be careful you don’t retreat to your microphone, wristband, watch, ring or other item whenever you speak or think.

5) Move Up and Down

These gestures are uncomfortable for many people. The more redundant your gestures, the less interest your audience will have.

Find ways to communicate amounts of something, sizes, height, or even consecutive points by moving your hands or even your whole body from lower to higher.

Steps can help here. Another useful reminder in this area is a simple note on the podium to remind you to use vertical movements when making a specific point.

6) Smile Often

The first emotion you show on your face will set the tone for the entire message. Click To Tweet

Smile early. Smile often.

People want to connect with a nice person. They likely won’t be excited about your message if your facial expressions don’t show you are excited.

7) Look At Faces, Not Notes

Be very, very careful looking down too often. Notes help but they also can hurt your message.

Look out into your audience at specific faces. Trust me, this may feel uncomfortable but it will improve your connection with your audience. It will also increase their interest in what you have to say.

(One disclaimer that should be noted here is that some cultures don’t have as high of a value placed on direct eye contact. If you are serving in a context like this, try looking at the back of the room. Look up as if you are talking to someone far out in the future or far back in the past.)

8) Vary Your Speech Patterns

I make mistakes in this area when I haven’t prepared well. Prepare well and equip yourself to vary your speech patterns.

  • Speak louder at certain times.
  • Build up to a powerful moment in your message.
  • Use repetition wisely. Repeat. Repeat. Do it again. Repeat. Repeat.
  • Enunciate your words by hitting your consonants hard. Practice this by saying one sentence in an overly emphatic way in your office (Try listening to another speaker you admire and notice how they effectively “strike” consonants in a way that strengthens their communication.)

9) Interact With a Prop

Props gives the audience a visual cue that reminds them of your message. If you can use a large prop like a small boat, a motorcycle, or an empty chair, you will move more and people will remember it.

When is the last time you used a prop? Think about the next public speaking opportunity you have and decide on an effective prop that will get you moving and reinforce what you want to communicate.

10) Use Your Hands

Open hands invite people into your message and closed hands create a barrier. There are exceptions to this rule but let’s look at what open hands do.

Open hands express an invitation to your audience to join you. They also communicate a sense of “questioning” rather than “telling.” When those listening to you perceive that they are part of the conversation they will be more likely to relate to you.

When your hands are closed or held tightly in a fist, those listening may think you are commanding or enforcing a point. I’m not saying fists can’t be an effective gesture, but they can also frustrate and further disconnect your from those you are trying to motivate, educate, or influence.

I believe people today want to hear less force and enjoy more invitation.

When people see look at your hands, what message do they hear? This sounds counterintuitive in one sense because hands don’t usually make noise in public speaking. But a helpful axiom a good friend once told me applies here. People hear you more with their eyes than they do with their ears.

As someone who speaks frequently to both small and large audiences, I admit that I struggle with many of these gestures as well. You likely will never give a perfect speech, keynote address, sermon, or webinar.

However, if you can gain better command and intentionality with your gestures, you will notice greater impact in your communication.

Which of these 10 gestures do you need to work on this week? Take a tangible step to improve one of these gestures and let me know how it goes/went.

If you can gain better command with your gestures, you'll notice greater impact in your communication. Click To Tweet

Have anything to contribute to this post? Leave a comment with how I can improve it or another tip you wish I would have included.


This post is part of a series of posts on Public Speaking. Feel free to check out any post in the series.

1) Public Speaking Tips for Leaders
2) 10 Intentional Public Speaking Gestures
3) 10 Ways to Clarify Your Message As a Public Speaker
4) 5 Tips to Clarify Your Intended Result for Your Audience
5) 7 Ways to Begin Your Public Speech With a Bang
6) 7 Steps to Practice Beforehand as a Public Speaker
7) 10 Ways to Use Repetition in Public Speaking
8) 7 Step Process to Plan for Silence in Your Speaking
9) 5 Ways to Match the Message to a Mission
10) 10 Ways to Evaluate Your Public Speaking