Skip to navigationSkip to content

Learn the seven signature moves of TED Talk hands

Flickr/Leo Orestes
Measure the loaf and share the love.
  • Corinne Purtill
By Corinne Purtill


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Imagine: The people at TED (or probably—let’s be honest—the organizers of a local TEDx event) have asked you to give a talk. You’ve arrived! You’re going to get on that stage and give an audience the most memorable 18 minutes (or less) of their lives. You know what you want to say with your mouth. But what are you going to say with your hands?

Author Vanessa Van Edwards studied years’ worth of TED talks and found that the most popular speakers (as measured by online views of their speeches) used almost twice as many hand gestures as the least popular.

On a neurological level, hand gestures act as a bridge between thought and action. On a rhetorical level they are visual punctuation, enhancing meaning, directing the listener’s attention, and underscoring points. They are a visual aide of incomparable effectiveness. Plus, you’ll look so weird if you just stand there with them still at your sides.

Not to worry. Quartz At Work reviewed hours (literally: hours) of TED and TEDx talks online to identify the seven most common types of TED talk hand gestures. We’ve named and organized them into this handy menu for your next viral speech.

Measure the Loaf

This signature move—hands held about 18 inches apart, palms facing each other, slashing the air ever so slightly as if to show off a chunk of knowledge “this big”’—is utilized so often in TED talks that Kyle MacDonald of One Red Paperclip mocked its ubiquity in his own 2015 speech. Measuring the Loaf is an open gesture, one that telegraphs honesty and vulnerability by making clear that you come unarmed, or as one communications coach told the Washington Post: “No tools, no weapons.” The subtle measuring gesture also primes the audience for something big: How much information am I about to hit you with? This much.

How to speak so that people want to listen, Julian Treasure (2014)

Embrace the near win, Sarah Lewis (2014)

No Sex Marriage—Masturbation, loneliness, cheating and shame, Maureen McGrath (2016)

If you want to achieve your goals, don’t focus on them, Reggie Rivers (2013)

Expand and Clasp

This is a circular journey that starts with clasped hands, cycles briefly through Measure the Loaf, and ends with the hands back together again. “When you bring both of your hands together, it is a gesture of combining and is a great way to symbolically show two forces coming together as one,” according to the blog Science of People. “You can even mesh or fold your hands together to show complete togetherness.”

Body Language: The power is in the palm of your hands, Allan Pease (2013)

Body Language: The key to your subconscious, Ann Washburn (2016)

Pinch and Point

You’re reaching out to pinch something from the air and shaking it ever so slightly. Are you punctuating an important point for the audience? Or are you metaphorically grabbing their attention by the ear and giving it a good throttle? In Pinch and Point, these two forces symbolically come together as one (see Expand and Clasp, above.)

Speak like a leader, Simon Lancaster (2016)

How to make stress your friend, Kelly McGonigal (2014)

The 7 secrets of the greatest speakers in history, Richard Greene (2014)

The Countdown

You are enumerating your points, and also the millions of YouTube views this talk is going to rack up.

The first 20 hours—how to learn anything, Josh Kaufman (2013)

Extreme ownership, Jocko Willing (2017)

This or That

Here your hands guide the audience through an intellectual slalom course. You’re asking listeners to consider one thing, but also (and this is where you blow their minds) this other thing as well. One’s over here, the other’s over there. You’re painting a picture with words, and with your hands.

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed, Daniel Levitin (2015)

When money isn’t real: the $10,000 experiment, Adam Carroll (2015)

No Sex Marriage—Masturbation, loneliness, cheating and shame, Maureen McGrath (2016)

The Fist Point (aka Clinton Thumb)

Nobody likes being pointed at. The fist point, then, is a way to underscore an important point without the scolding, accusatory associations of a raised index finger—because it uses a thumb instead. Clinton Thumb works best when paired with an intellectually complex point, making it a TED talk favorite. “It is articulating that you’re focusing on something, and that you’re grasping it cognitively,” body language expert Joe Navarro told Business Insider.

After watching this, your brain will not be the same, Lara Boyd (2015)

How to speak so that people want to listen, Julian Treasure (2014)

Trust Me

A hand on a heart says: I’ve got 2.2 million YouTube views. Would I lie to you?

The 7 secrets of the greatest speakers in history, Richard Greene (2014)

The magical science of storytelling, David JP Phillips (2017)

Image by Leo Orestes on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0. It has been cropped.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.