I was recently attending a sold-out event where the young hostess got up on the table and shouted out instructions on how to get into the event. She offered four points: she held up her index finger and stated point one, and then dropped her arm to her thigh with a thud. She held up her index finger again and stated point two, and again dropped her arm to her thigh with a thud, and so on. It wasn’t pretty from the nonverbal perspective. It would have been more effective had she held her arm in place and raised fingers to correspond with the verbal count. However, even without it looking graceful, it worked. The audience got it. Why? One of the more common intentional gestures is holding a hand up and counting on the fingers, we often call this a teaching gesture. Many of us are familiar with it from childhood.

When we use only words to communicate, we make it necessary for our audience to pay very close attention to what we say. Consider using intentional hand gestures to add a visual to what you are saying. They support your message and keep the listener fully engaged. Intentional hand gestures —

  • Create an emotional response for both you and the listener;
  • Develop an emotional attachment to the message;
  • Determine how the listener will respond;
  • Enhance long-term memory retention of subject.

For example, let’s say that you are beginning the monthly team meeting by going over the agenda. “Before we begin, let’s review today’s agenda. We have five major points to cover today.”

In this statement, five major points is the area to emphasize with a corresponding intentional gesture. Use a gesture the audience is already familiar with to enhance clarity and comfort. Since you want the audience to remember five, hold up your arm to mimic the old right-turn signal. Then emphasize, “Number one, we need to cover the sales report,” with a gesture to indicate number one with one of your fingers going up. Number two, we will review budgets. (Indicate with a second finger going up.) And so on.

The gestures add a visual reminder aiding the listener’s long-term memory that often saves you from having to repeat yourself. A curious side effect of counting nonverbally is that the audience remembers which finger is the sales report and which finger is the budget. They often use the same fingers in recounting the message to someone else.

Using intentional hand gestures “that teach” like counting on your fingers to stress important points works for large audiences, small groups (eight or fewer), and one-to-one communication. You’ll want to lessen the intensity of the gesture when speaking to eight or fewer people. To do this, simply make the gesture smaller or closer to your body. For example, when stating, “We need to cover five major points in today’s meeting,” there is no need for the larger gesture of raising the arm. Simply raise your hand by bending only at the elbow, like a princess wave. (The counting on the fingers can remain the same.)
Using gestures when giving directions or teaching makes the audience less dependent on the verbal part of the presentation. The visual reminder created by gestures allows the listener two ways to remember: auditory and visual. It thereby increases the likelihood of accurate recall.

Gestures that teach can teach anything, even proper conduct. If you want the audience to raise their hands before asking questions, teach them nonverbally that raising their hands is the protocol. As you ask questions, raise your arm and slightly turn your hand back and forth while you ask a question, such as “Who is from out of town?”

Look for other cues and signals that already have the meaning you are seeking when you use intentional gestures. It makes getting the true meaning of your message so much easier.