Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas has apologized to the patriotism patrol for not putting her hand over her heart when they played “The Star Spangled Banner” in Rio. She meant no disrespect, she said, she was overwhelmed by her team’s gold medal win.

A few commentators defended Douglas with the idea that expressions of patriotic fervor shouldn’t be coerced. Freedom means you can make such a gesture. Or not. (For the record, I’m with them.)

Here’s the thing. Not a week before the Twitter types were up in arms about Gabby’s no-hand-on-heart, the New York Times was all over Hillary Clinton for, guess what? Yes, the paper complained. She was right there on stage in Philadelphia … putting her hand on her heart!


Noting that Clinton had touched her heart several times during her convention speech, the Times called it “a subliminal message of sincerity that some language experts consider contrived.”

And then of course it went on to quote one of those experts. Who called it the “gesture du jour” and suggested that the campaign had tested the hand-on-heart routine on focus groups.

Here’s the thing. Presidential candidates are under enormous scrutiny all the time. Of course they get coaching to improve their speaking style. And their words are carefully crafted by professional and very talented speech-writers.

Totally possible that some coach said, “Hey, when you put your hand on your heart, it conveys sincerity. Or thoughtfulness. Or delight even.” It’s also possible that accepting her party’s nomination for president really made the candidate feel sincere, thoughtful and delighted.

You have likely not had the kind of coaching the candidates get – although I recommend it if you communicate with clients or customers or colleagues. Which is to say, if you have a business or a job or a cause you believe in. (And yes, you know a good coach …)

So here’s a quick course on using gestures well.

Any speaking expert will tell you gestures are important when you’re speaking. They can convey emotion, as the hand-on-heart does. Or information – we use gestures to indicate number, size, direction.

Gestures energize a speaker, and by extension, an audience. If you’ve ever watched someone talk with hands in pockets or gripping the sides of a podium, you know how dull the lack of motion can be.

You can add gestures to your repertoire. And you should if you’re in the habit of keeping your hands clasped together when you talk. But it’s not so much about a specific gesture.

I think it’s a mistake to program a speaker to make a specific motion at a certain time – it almost always looks false. People sense that something’s off, even if they couldn’t tell you exactly what it is.

So you should be using the gestures that are natural for you. There are, however, some gestures to avoid.

  • People generally don’t like to be pointed at; you’ll want to soften your hand if you’re gesturing toward somebody, so you don’t look aggressive or scolding.
  • Wispy, floating, continuous gestures will hurt you, especially when it comes to credibility. Strong gestures have a beginning and an end; the hands come to rest. And then gesture again.
  • Palms-up gestures are receptive. That works if you want your audience to answer a question – or ask you one. Invite participation with your palms up. When you’re ready to wrap things up or to have the last word, a palms-down gesture works better.
  • Gestures are most effective when your hands are above your waist and below your shoulders. Waving your hands around up near your head will make you look goofy.
  • We recognize nervous gestures for what they are. So it won’t serve you well to fiddle with your jewelry, a pen, or your hair. The audience will pick up your discomfort.
  • Your hands shouldn’t be in your pockets; you certainly shouldn’t be rattling keys or coins.
  • If you fold your arms across your chest, many people will read it as closed and defensive although in truth, you may just be cold. The folded arms lock up your hands and interfere with gesture; it’s best to avoid that.
  • Some speakers stand with their arms extended down in front of them and their hands clasped. It looks defensive, awkward, and low-energy. (In the presentation skills biz, we call that the fig leaf position.)

As for your hand on your heart? I say go for it if it feels natural to you. Unless someone from the New York Times is watching.

Share your observations about speaking and gestures – your own or somebody else’s.