“What the heck should I do with my hands?” This question often comes up when I’m helping clients improve their public speaking skills. Speaking in front of a group of people, it’s easy to feel exposed and self-conscious—which tends to exacerbate any anxiety we may feel about how we represent ourselves or how we feel about the strength of our content. The main goal is learning to be self-aware (so that we know how we are representing ourselves) and can make choices in the moment.
Here are some tips I recommend about what to do with your hands while on stage:
1. Bigger Is better.
Try using broader gestures. They draw the eye and project dynamism. Develop a vocabulary of gestures. They are both an effective and efficient way to communicate.
An example where more dynamic gestures will fit is when you provide the audience with a list as in, “The first point that is important is… The second point is…” Often, presenters will use what I call the Small List. Their elbows are close to their body, and their hands are within the silhouette of their body—this posture is not visually compelling to an audience. Instead, you should use gestures to visually separate the various items on your list, as though you are drawing out a spreadsheet or table in the air.
2. Stay open, not closed.
Some presenters hold their hands in the “prayer” or “professor” position. This always seems either awkward or pretentious to me. Others clasp their hands in front of them.
Another common phenomenon is what I call “T-Rex Arms.” In this case, the speaker is gesturing, but their elbows don’t leave their sides. This makes them seem stiff and constrained rather than free and open.
Any closed posture projects the need to protect one’s self. It raises the question in the minds of the audience, “Why do you feel the need to protect yourself?” Open postures project a sense of openness, power, and confidence.
3. Practice stillness.
Some speakers have fidgety hands, which makes them look nervous and unsure of themselves. When not gesturing, try letting your hands just fall in a relaxed way to your side. This will project more openness to your audience. In addition, your hands won’t distract from your message. But be careful about letting your hands slap back to your sides when you’re done with your gestures. Work to sustain the energy of the gesture while letting your hands smoothly descend all the way back to your sides. You may even try leaving your hands in a sustained gesture.
The fundamental truth I learned in my acting training is that our emotions are driven by our actions. Hence, when we behave in a way that represents ourselves as confident and powerful, we will actually start to feel confident and powerful.
Incorporating these behaviors into your practice will drive that result—more confidence and power. So go forth—and let your hands help do the talking!
Terry Gault is Managing Partner and Vice President of The Henderson Group, provides insight into how to become a better presenter by avoiding a few common mistakes. Terry oversees all curriculum and services at The Henderson Group. In addition he is responsible for the selection, training and development of all trainers and facilitators for The Henderson Group, and has been an instructor with the Henderson Group for over 15 years.