Talk with Your Hands! Gesturing as a Memory Technique

Ed: This is a guest post from Diane Windingland, expert presentation coach and author of 9 books on how to communicate more effectively.

Do you remember learning gestures to a rhyme or song as a child, to help you remember the words? Children recall words much better when meaningful gestures are paired with words. But, using gestures as a mnemonic device, isn’t just for children! And, using gestures when speaking isn’t just a way to engage your audience and to help them remember your content, either. Gestures help you, the speaker, learn, remember, and articulate your speech.

Numerous studies have shown a positive effect in using gestures to encode memories (get them into your memory) and to retrieve memories (to recall them). Findings suggest that gesturing may free up working memory resources for speaking.

There are two main types of gestures: beat gestures (simple, non-meaningful movements produced with the rhythm of the speech, such as a hand flip with an open palm) and iconic gestures (meaningful gestures). For adults, both types of gestures aid recall.

Spontaneous, unplanned beat gestures can enhance your language production, facilitating more articulate speech. This may explain why so many people gesture while speaking on the phone. It’s obviously not for the person on the other end! Spontaneous gestures also may help you access the elusive “Tip-of-the Tongue” words and memories. Gesturing seems to pull the thought out of your memory.

Obama making a presentation

Meaningful, iconic gestures are what most people think of when they hear the word “gesture.” The list of iconic gestures is long! The Wikipedia List of Gestures has more than 125 gestures from around the world. A word of caution about cross-cultural gesturing: check the meaning of your gestures when speaking in a different culture. The American thumbs-up gesture, for example, is childish or obscene in some other countries. Also, the appropriate frequency, magnitude and type of gestures may change depending on the culture or situation. The almost-theatrical gestures of a winning contest speech may be inappropriate in a business presentation.

When creating your speeches, look for opportunities to incorporate iconic gestures to help you and your audience remember your content.

Here’s an example for a presentation on public speaking skills, with 3 supporting points, each with specific, meaningful gestures:

Point 1: “Focus on your audience” (action: look through a circle made with your thumb and fingers).

Point 2: “Internalize, don’t memorize your material” (action—2 or 3 part-gesture sequence: For the word “internalize,” hold one hand over your heart. For the phrase, “don’t memorize your material” use that same hand, along with your other hand to make a brief, horizontal cutting gesture, with hands moving from center out, at chest height. At the same time shake your head “no.” Additionally, you could add a tap to your temple at the word “memorize.”

Point 3: “Tell a story” (action: hold your hands together, facing up in a V-shape, like an open book).

Then, in the conclusion, use each gesture again as you revisit the 3 points.

These 3 gestures, tied to your main points, give you the mental hooks on which you can hang the framework your speech. Try using a specific, defining gesture for each of your speech points to make your message memorable to your audience and to yourself.Using hands in presentations

Recommendations for gesturing as a memory device:

  • Train yourself to gesture more. Prod yourself in your speech notes to gesture, either with specific, meaningful gestures or planned, “spontaneous” gestures. This will seem awkward at first, but you don’t have to use all the gestures that you try out.
  • Watch some TED talks focusing on the gestures. Get some ideas to try.
  • Experiment with having a specific gesture for each of your speech points. See for yourself if doing so helps with recall.
  • Video yourself practicing and watch for what works, and what doesn’t. Gestures, even if planned, must flow naturally as you speak. If you script and choregraph your gestures too much, you may forget your speech, and you may not look or sound natural. Conversely, some spontaneous gestures may be too repetitive (e.g., continually slicing the air). Keep in mind that you may need to adjust the size/type of gestures to the audience or venue size (bigger gestures for a bigger audience).
  • Practice your speech as you plan to give it, including gestures so that the words are encoded in your memory along with the gestures, making recall easier.
  • Do a culture check on gestures when speaking cross-culturally.
  • Adjust for recorded speeches. If you are speaking on video, gestures that cut in and out of the frame can be distracting. Either keep gestures out of the frame, or record in a wider shot, to show the gestures.

Gesture for your audience and for yourself. Gestures not only can help your audience understand and remember your message, they also can help you remember your content and speak more fluently.

Go ahead, talk with your hands!

Diane Windingland is an author of 9 books on communication skills. She speaks on and trains subject matter experts to present with clarity and confidence, shaping what they know into presentations that engage and get results. Learn more at


Gesturing during encoding improves recall:

Gesturing facilitates speech: production:

Gesturing frees up working memory:

Non-meaningful gestures aid memory in adults:

List of gestures: