What do you do with your hands when you’re speaking? Clients and workshop participants ask me about this all the time. As they work to develop their front-of-the-room skills, they often seem confounded by those two things dangling at the ends of their arms.

Here’s the answer to “What do I do with my hands?” Use them. A lot. Read on to find out why.

The same way we use gestures in ordinary conversation, we should be using gestures when we’re in front of an audience.

That means you might use your hands to indicate quantity or show the size of an object. You might tick off the points you’re making. You might gesture for emphasis, to drive your point home. Gestures can clarify and enhance a description or direct your comment toward a person. Your hands are really a visual aid that can increase your listeners’ understanding.

And the main reason it’s so important to gesture during your talk is … it makes your talk much more interesting and engaging.

You may have read last week about the Science of People research on TED talks. They had people watch TED talks from the same time period, many of them about similar subjects. And rate the speakers on charisma, credibility and intelligence.

The ratings from participants in the study correlated strongly with online views, shares and comments. So the same speakers whose TED talks ricocheted around the web also got high marks for charisma, credibility and intelligence in the Science of People study.

And, the main factor in the ratings was not the content of the talk. It was the way the speaker delivered the information. Some TED talks on similar subjects got radically different ratings because of how each speaker came across.

How important are your hands, when you’re speaking? There was a direct correlation between the number of gestures in a TED talk and the number of views it got.

Gestures literally made a speaker more popular. A LOT more popular.

In fact, the least-watched TED talks garnered an average of 124,000 views. And the speakers used, on average, 272 hand gestures during their 18-minute talk.

The top TED talks had an average of 7,360,000 views. And the speakers used an average of 465 hand gestures in the same 18 minutes. Almost twice as many gestures as the speakers in the least-watched talks.

Frequency of gestures was especially associated with charisma. The two main factors in charisma ratings were hand gestures and vocal variety.

Get that. Your audience will find you more charismatic if you use your hands freely when you speak.

Are there gestures to avoid? Yes.

  • 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • Your hands shouldn’t be in your pockets; you certainly shouldn’t be rattling keys or coins.
  • Often 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.)
  • 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.

Bottom line: we want to see your hands. This study and a lot of other research shows that we’re far more likely to trust a speaker when their hands are visible.

In fact, story of the handshake is that it evolved on ancient battlefields. When combatants came in peace they extended their right hand to demonstrate that they weren’t holding a weapon. It’s been programmed in our DNA – when hands are hidden, it raises a barely conscious suspicion, just enough to make us wonder if we can really trust the person.

Think about the language we use when for a sneaky maneuver. We call it “under-handed.”

Now you’ve probably seen politicians who appear to have been heavily programmed before, say, a debate on TV. Some speech coach told them to use more gestures and now they look like someone dropped a quarter in the slot and made them move like a mechanical man. Their gestures are unrelated to the content of their talk; they’re moving their hands just to move their hands.

That is NOT the goal for you. Use natural gestures, the same ones you use in ordinary conversation, the ones that are a fit for you. Let go of self-consciousness and you’ll automatically use appropriate gestures. Keep your hands where your audience can see them, and use them to add a visual component to the story you’re telling,

And like the Ted speakers, you too will be more charismatic.