Gestures and Body

Language is a more recent technology. Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking. Peter Guber


In this section we are going to look at the nonverbal attributes of gestures, interpersonal space, touch, body posture and movement.


Gestures have been defined in a number of ways. We can gesture not only with our arms and hands, but also our head and shoulders. Let’s look at how. Interestingly gestures can also “help to smooth interactions and facilitate some aspects of memory” (Matsumoto & Hwang 2015). For example counting off items om our fingers when we are trying to remember a list of things, or crossing your arms across your chest in a hug to demonstrate belonging can help smooth an interaction.

Matsumoto and Hwang define gestures in two types as those that we use when we speak and those that don’t need words to be understood.

To illustrate the gestures that we use when we speak, we are going to use the The Eight Efforts of Rudolph Laban. (Bradley 2019 p. 118)

Laban ActionDuration and weightExamples
FloatSustained, Indirect, LightWe need to take it easy
Can I speak to you before you go?
PunchQuick, Direct, StrongWe need to stop this behaviour
Well done everyone!
GlideSustained, Direct, LightJust repeat it over and over if you need to
Let’s go from the beginning
SlashQuick, Indirect, StrongLet’s hit them out of the park
You need to cut it out
DabQuick, Direct, LightThey were feverishly shaping pastry in the kitchen
Show me where we are going on the map
WringSustained, Indirect, StrongIt was difficult to get access to the information
We went around in circles
PressSustained, Direct, StrongWe just have to persevere
We need to focus on the areas that need improving
FlickQuick, Indirect, LightWe were on fire!
They just won’t go away

When planning your presentation mark up where you might use one or two of these gestures to emphasise a point. If gestures don’t come naturally to you, then the key is to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse until it feels second nature.

It’s also important to keep in mind that “one would be hesitant to rely on what is said when the facial, or the vocal, expression contradicts the words.” (Mehrabian 2017 p. 182). For example if we are going to say something is exciting we need to ensure that our facial expression and gestures and even body align with being excited, otherwise what we are saying comes into doubt.

The second group refered to above. Matsumoto and Hwang call Emblems, these convey a meaning without words.

Here are some examples:

WhatHowDifferent cultural Meanings
A-OKforming a circle with the index finger and thumb, remaining fingers extendedThings are going well, have a negative sexual connotation, money or zero
Peace signindex and middle fingers up in a V shape, palm facing outward /inwardOutward: V is for victory. Inward: V is an insult – typically English and Australia.
Crossed fingersInterlacing of two fingersHoping for good luck
L ShapeCreate an L shape on your forehead with your fingersLoser in America, the number 8 in China
Thumbs upFist clenched, thumb protruding upPositive sign, things are good. Derogatory in some countries.
Come hereHand up, palm facing in, all fingers down except for index finger, which curls.Asking someone to join you. Derogatory in some countries

Let’s not forget our head and body. We use it to gesture to say yes and no and integrate that action with different facial expressions. For example nodding yes whilst smiling can be interpreted as very supportive. The body is used to gesture when we shrug by raising our shoulders. This can also include our lower arms and facial expression and can mean we don’t understand.

Head and body movement are also contextually cultural.

Here’s a great demonstration of how to use 11 other different types of gestures by Mary Daphne.

Interpersonal Space

Interpersonal space can be defined as intimate, personal, social and public (Matsumoto & Hwang 2015 p. 84). Our proximity will in turn determine how we use all our verbal and non verbal communication tools. As a guide, the further we get away from out audience the bigger and more dynamic they get. Once again this is culturally dependant.

If you are presenting at a TED conference or a large auditorium this could be viewed as public.

Social distance is viewed as between 4 to 12 feet. A large meeting space with perhaps a small raised stage.

Personal space would be a meeting room scenario and between 2 to 4 feet.

Intimate would possibly be sitting next to someone or around a small round table and be less than 2 feet.


Touch can either be of someone else or of yourself as presenter.

First touching someone else. Especially at the time of writing during social distancing related to Covid-19, touching someone else would typically not be advised as it violates personal space and would not potentially be viewed as hygienic. Outside of this a fist bump or elbow touch may be appropriate if you have invited someone onto a stage. A light tap on the shoulder to direct someone to an activity may also be viewed as ok in some circumstances.

Touching yourself. You may touch yourself to scratch an itch to symbolise that something is not quite right, rub your arm vigorously to demonstrate that you feel uncomfortable, rub the back or your neck to symbolise you are worried, place your hand in your heart zone to demonstrate a feeling or place a hand on your abdominal region to highlight the need to relax and breath.


Posture can be either sitting in a video conferencing situation or standing in front of a live audience.

Rob McNeilly (2000 p.65) quotes Rafael Eccheveria, as saying, “How we stand is how we stand in life, and how we move is how we move in life.” The inference for me here is that if we are trying to create an impressions of confidence and energy, assertion and strength, happiness and lightness or grief and sadness, how we stand will play a vital role in whether we are able to able to communicate these emotions effectively.

Our default posture position is a standing square – feet shoulder width apart, with shoulders back and hands in a comfortable rest position facing our audience. We can alter our posture depending on the point we are trying to get across at the time. Stuart Heller (2004) discuss 4 postures: fire, water, wind and ground. We can use these to help us to convey meaning in our presentation. These positions are not sustained but momentary, a few seconds in duration and subtle.

How we do itWhen we would use it
FireOne-foot forward chest up, weight forwardTo be seen as inspirational, outgoing and persuasive
WaterOne-foot back weight backTo be seen as cooperative, responsive, and a team player
WindOne-foot back, weight back, turning to one sideTo be seen as flexible, unemotional, and non-aggressive
GroundOne-foot slightly forward, weight centredTo be seen as decisive, strong, and focused


A lot of presentations don’t lend themselves to a lot of movement. Either because of the size of the room or the nature of the presentation. Regarding this last point we need to match the message, the environment, and the expectations of the audience. As an extreme example you are not going to present like Steve Ballmer at the weekly team update with 5 of your colleagues.

Keep in mind the following:

Move with purpose. Don’t wander aimlessly. Either stand still or have a reason to move. Moving aimlessly can be very distracting for the audience.

Balance the room. Some presenters, when standing on one side of the room, will focus on either the side they are standing on or the opposite side. This can be rectified by moving to the other side of the room to balance up the focus.

Use the room. When space allows, use as much of the room as possible. Think about what you are trying to achieve and match the movement to that objective. If you are trying to motivate the audience, move with a sense of urgency to the side of the room or if appropriate the back of the room. Always keeping in mind that the movement must match your purpose and what you are covering at the time.


Heller, S 2004, ‘The Movement of Strategy’,

Bradley, KK 2019, Rudolf Laban, London New York : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Matsumoto, D & Hwang, HS 2015, ‘Body and Gestures’, in A Kostić and D Chadee (eds), The social psychology of nonverbal communication,  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

McNeilly, RB 2000, Healing the whole person : a solution-focused approach to using empowering language, emotions, and actions in therapy, Wiley, New York ; Chichester.

Mehrabian, A 2017, Nonverbal Communication, Routledge, London, England New York, New York.