UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 25: Photo of Larry BLACKMON and CAMEO; Larry Blackmon (centre) performing at The Venue, London (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
Public speakers are advised to take a little more care than Cameo when waving their hands in the air

Wave your hands in the air like you don’t care, advised the lead singer of Cameo a little more than 30 years ago. Unusually for a 1980s dance/funk crossover hit, this advice is not to be relied on. How you use your hands when you speak in public is a matter that you should care about.

An extravagant way with the hands can be a public speaker’s downfall or — as in the case of the late scientist and television personality Magnus Pyke — something of a trademark. Either way, body language can greatly affect your spoken language: will you look confident and focused, or nervous and excitable? A speaker’s command of their body and command of the audience go together.

Gyles Brandreth, one of the UK’s most experienced after-dinner speakers, makes the point that most of us barely notice our hands until we’re speaking in public; then “they appear uncommonly large and obtrusive”. The nervous speaker will fiddle with them or seek to conceal them. Everything feels unnatural. Mr Brandreth advises that you gently clasp a lectern if you have one (you don’t, in a TED talk) or, failing that, clasp your hands loosely in front of yourself — letting them hang by your sides looks awkward and feels unnatural.

But the ambitious speaker can do better than that. One of the minor treasures of the British Library’s collection is the original 1644 edition of John Bulwer’s Chirologia/Chironomia, an entire book dedicated to hand gestures (from the blown kiss to the middle-finger salute), handsomely illustrated with woodcuts. Bulwer’s view remains relevant today: we speak with our hands as well as our mouths, and what we do naturally can be improved on.

Successors in spirit to Bulwer’s lonely enterprise are to be found all around us. Vanessa Van Edwards, the behavioural psychologist, for instance, recently analysed the hand gestures used in TED talks and discovered that the least successful talkers used an average of 272 gestures per talk; the most successful used an average of 465.

Those gestures can be categorised. Ms Van Edwards herself offers “20 hand gestures you should be using”, while the online management site Quartz at Work has “seven signature moves of TED talk hands”.

Having momentarily set aside the “I’m not hiding anything” (palms out and up at 45 degrees), the “you listen to me” (palms down), the “pinch and point” (grab small imaginary object between finger and thumb; shake it about a bit) and “measuring the loaf” (palms facing each other, 18 inches apart, cutting the air — as in the dance move known as big fish, little fish, cardboard box), in favour of one I call the “pinch of salt” (finger and thumb together, thrown towards left shoulder), we can make some general observations.


Average number of hand gestures used in a successful TED talk, according to research by behavioural psychology author Vanessa Van Edwards

Opening your palms towards the audience connotes openness. Enumeratio, or numbered lists, can be greatly emphasised by ticking off points on the finger. Gestures that restrict space — measuring the air between thumb and fingers or blocking out space with the hands — can section off points of an argument. Moving your hands round in a wide arc and intermeshing your fingers can emphasise two points coming together to a conclusion. You can strengthen an antithesis by moving your hands from one side of your body to the other, as if moving a shoebox from a table. You can draw attention to personal experience with a clasped fist applied firmly to your sternum, and so on.

What all these things have in common, however you portion them out and whatever fancy names you give them, is that they control the space. Hand gestures need to be emphatic and deliberate. They need to underscore what you’re saying rather than distract from it.

So while they mustn’t appear artificial (Bulwer, for instance, warns that “the trembling hand is scenical and belongs more to the theatre than the forum”), they do not need to seem natural, either. Public speaking is a form of theatre. There’s no shame in practising how you move as well as how you talk.

Sam Leith’s latest book is ‘Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page’ (Profile Books)


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