Guide on the Side - It's In Your Hands

The language of the hands is learned before speech. It starts in the womb and is demonstrated immediately at birth. It continues to develop right up to the moment you give a speech and then amnesia sets in.

(Archived January 1, 1998)



Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.

Experts tell us body language accounts for between 65% and 55% of our communication. Just what is body language? It is carriage, facial expressions, eye contact and gestures. All go into establishing your presence and making a connection with the audience. Gestures can be made with your hands, arms, shoulder, torso, legs, feet or a combination of these but hand gestures are probably the most common.

When you are preparing a speech, what proportion of time and effort do you give to the movement and cadence of your hands? If you are like most people, the answer is not much. Yet appropriate use of your hands appreciably increases understanding and retention of your message. Here is a handful of tips to reveal what's in your hands.

Benefits of Hand Gestures

  • Say more in less time
  • Show what you mean without using visuals
  • Uncover your personality and vitality
  • Signal your conviction and confidence
  • Add texture and dimension to your ideas

Use Hand Gestures to

  • Express emotion or attitude
  • Emphasize importance, urgency, or priority
  • Epitomize action, relationship or contrast
  • Show shape, direction or location
  • Signal recognition, acceptance, departure, or approval

Roadblocks to Hand Gestures

  • Stage fright closes down normal muscle coordination
  • Notes held in the hands immobilizes them
  • A lectern or podium, especially for short people, hides hand gestures
  • There are not enough speakers using gestures well to observe
  • Few opportunities to get personal feedback on your use of hand gestures
  • Education emphasizes the use of words and not gestures
  • Constructing your speech with sentences instead of ideas and images
  • The need to look natural and spontaneous but be deliberate and precise

What to Do Until Your Nerves Settle Down

Deliver presentations with hands relaxed at your sides.
Avoid making the audience nervous with gestures that reveal anxiety:

  • Gripping the Lectern
  • Fiddling with clothing
  • Clenching hands together
  • Clutching an object
  • Touching a body part (pulling ear, wiping brow, rubbing chin)

How to use gestures after you learn to relax

  • Open by showing your emotion about being there (enthusiasm, honor, excited)
  • Accentuate your point of view with a solid, intentional gesture
  • Introduce humor by contradiction between your gestures and your words
  • Emphasize main points with deliberate gestures
  • Indicate a new topic or transition with a forward or open gesture
  • Respond to audience input with affirmative or encompassing gestures
  • Signal the ending with a gesture indicating closure or departure

Hand Gesture Caveats

  • Don't forget to add hand gesture notations to your speech notes
  • Avoid using the same hand gesture over and over in a pumping action
  • Don't animate or mime your entire speech
  • Refrain from copying others, the best gestures are unique to you
  • Avoid using gestures as decorations, instead use them as structure
  • New gestures feel as strange to your body as new words to your mouth; practice them until they are comfortable
  • One-handed gestures are often more effective than both hands mirroring each other
  • Avoid finger and fist gestures that may be insulting to other cultures
  • Gestures are a physical activity, you can not learn to do them by reading
  • Use a mirror to verify that your gestures reinforce your message
  • Projector and computer screens tend to shift focus away from the speaker

Law librarians frequently give demonstrations--the How To speech. The hands are automatically engaged with the item demonstrated. The demo will be improved if you refine your gestures and practice them to match your words. Even something as routine as turning on the computer can be done with drama, humor, or a surprise perspective.

Think of hand gestures as a camera. It's in your hands. You can use it to frame, to zoom in on or to pan your subject. Hand gestures help Picture Your Speech.

Use this Checklist of Opposites to Develop Your Hand Gesture Vocabulary

Casual Intentional
Solid Fluid
Quick and short Slow and sustained
Simple Complex
Single motion Repetitive motion
One hand Both hands
Symmetrical Asymmetrical
Angular Circular
Forward Back
Horizontal Vertical
Tentative Bold
Closed Open
Hand with rigid wrist Hand with flexible wrist
Arm not engaged Arm engaged
Hand as unit (fist) Hand with fingers extended
Elbow not engaged Elbow engaged
Single finger Fingers as unit
Mimetic Coded
Universal Culturally specific
Empty Holding