Monday, December 23, 2013

The Storyteller's Toolkit: Hands

The Storyteller's Toolkit is a simple way to talk about the elements that storyteller's use to present a story.  These do not include puppets, props, costumes or anything extraneous.  You can certainly use all of those things as a storyteller, but they are not standard tools in the toolkit.  

The basics in the toolkit are as follows.

Voice:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Eyes:  If you missed this post, just click here.

Face:  If you missed this post, just click here


Body:  If you missed the post, just click here

Easy enough.  In keeping with my new policy about blog entries.  We will deal with each of these one at a time.  Today's selection deals with the hands.

There are so many things to say about the hands.  I found more information about gesturing than I did about eye contact, or using the voice, which I found odd, but there you have it.  Apparently, the hands, really freak people out and they have no idea what to do with them.  What was most amusing to me was how many people had done videos about hands and gesture.  The best one belonged to Sean Buvala over at  Some of the things I found were wild and some were fascinating.  Some I found completely counter intuitive and others were only just sort of helpful.  Here is my top list of things I read this evening about employing gesture in storytelling that either amused me, surprised me, or was actually useful.

Toastmasters International did an entire pamphlet on how to add appropriate gestures to your work.

Then, there was this fascinating, incredibly long article about research on creating effective storytelling robots by giving them gesture and controlling how long they gaze at audience members while trying to convince them of something.  I kid you not.

Then, there was a long article about the kinds of gesture people use, how they can be categorized and how they are employed by storytellers.

Take this link over to a youtube video of Sean Buvala explaining the best ways to infuse gesture into your stories.

Debbie Dunn puts her seven cents into the mix as well.

Karen Langford Chace has a great post about gesture in story.

Here's another video about using your hands effectively in presentation.

I even have a list of ten gestures to avoid!

I spent a long time reading things about gesture, why it is important, what you are supposed to do with it, and how to not look awkward in front of a group of people.  I spent lots of time watching videos about where your hands go and who knows what else.  Not surprisingly, lots of it is repetitive.

Hands can be your best friend as a storyteller, or your worst enemy.  They are never neutral.  They will either help you tell a story...or they will attack you.  It is important to know where your hands are and what they are doing.  Some folks are stingy with gesture, using it only as a kind of modifier to their work.  Some don't employ gesture at all, preferring to keep their hands under tight control.  Some folks have 'soft' gestures that don't quite form.  Here is a clip of me telling a story that is all about the gesture. It is called Red, Red Lips.  For a laugh, turn the sound completely off and just watch my hands.

If perchance you've read the posts about voice and eyes, you will note that I am not one to stint while employing either one of those, but this story is very much about gesture.

So, what are some ways to think about your hands?  I have only one piece of advice when it comes to gesture...GO FOR IT!

1.  Be deliberate.  Decide what you want your hands to do, and then go for it.  Your hands can either take your audience where you want them to go, or they can be floppy, mushy, useless appendages that are flapping about like useless bits of paper towel at the end of your arms.  The choice is yours.

2.  Be decisive.  Don't hold back.  Go for it.  Commit to what you are going to do, and then make the entire gesture.  Don't do it half way.  Do not hold your hands against your sides from shoulder to elbow and simply flap the bottom part of your arms.  You will look the robot from 'Lost In Space'.

4.  Don't Let Them Attack You!  If you don't know where your hands are, they are probably attacking you.  They will play with your hair, your clothes, your ears, your belt, earrings, necklaces, and anything else you might happen to have with you.  They are not your friends if they are not occupied.  Remember, "Idle hands are the Devil's playground."

5.  Think Illustratively.  Your hands have the power to create pictures.  Your hands can be everything from the top of the windowsill to the finger that shuts off the light switch.  As long as your hands show us what your words are saying, they will become part of the story.  In other words, you are the picture book!  See the pictures!  Be the pictures!  Live the pictures!

6.  Small Is Useless.  Making tiny gestures is really useless.  Nobody can see them and they don't translate very far beyond you.  One of the things you must do as a storyteller is to fill the space around you.  You should be looking to increase your size, not squish it down smaller than you are.  Just as a cornered cat will turn to the side and make itself look larger, you must use your hands and arms to 'increase' your size.  Thing Big! 

7.  Don't hold them!  Your hands are not going to go anywhere.  Don't clasp them unless you are doing it for emphasis.  Hold them at your sides, or keep them in some neutral position.  Choose your own neutral position.  Make sure your neutral position really is neutral, and not actually giving off a vibe that is counterproductive to your storytelling.

8.  Create themes for your audience!  If you create physical shapes with your hands that repeat in your story, your audience can use them as a point of reference.  You can also use them to create strong audience participation.  Your audience can do the gestures with you and enter the world of story.  This tends to tickle an audience no matter what the age.  Watch the first six seconds of the video below and you'll see what I mean.

 When you employ your hands, employ them!  Don't be afraid of them, they can do all sorts of fabulous things.  They can make stories materialize right before your audience, and they can also give your audience a way to join you in story.

So, free your hands!  Free your gestures!  Let your arms go!  Be free!

Empower Yourself.  Empower Your Stories.

Happy Telling!


  1. When I started posting pictures of storytellers at, I discovered that if you look at a photograph of a person in the act of telling a story, if the hands are not active, the moment captured doesn't look like storytelling. It looks like a person talking.

    1. I agree. One of the biggest difference between watching a polished storyteller and someone just telling a story or talking is the deliberate use of gesture. Thanks for reading my stuff, Tim!

  2. Thank you Donna. I believe in using both hand and facial gestures when they serve my story well. Some times though folks use gestures for gesture sake and it distracts me from the story I am co-creating in my mind. Thanks for sharing specific techniques with us.

    1. Vernon, thanks for stopping by the site! I have always believed that the crafting of stories gives them power. Choosing when you gesture, how you use your body, what your face is doing, lets the story fully develop for the audience. I think that it is always better to choose not to gesture than not to gesture because you haven't considered it. Thanks for your comment and I hope i see you somewhere in story!