“I don’t know what to do with my hands!” This phrase is something we hear all too often from both new and experienced speakers as we’re working with them on their delivery skills. We’ve all seen presenters who, not knowing what to do with their hands, use specific gestures over and over again. The redundant gestures distract the audience to the point that they’re no longer listening to what the speaker is saying and, as a result, the impact of their message is lost. So, what do we do with our hands? Here are three quick tips to help you use your hands naturally and effectively.
1. Catch yourself in a 1-1 conversation. When talking about gestures, everyone always says, “Just be natural.” That’s correct! But when you’re up in front of a room and everyone is looking at you, sometimes it’s hard to remember what natural looks like. Your hands seem to have a mind of their own. They either just hang there, like a salami in a butcher’s window, or they grab onto something like a lectern, laser pointer, or the insides of your pocket. To get an idea of what your natural gestures look like, try to consciously catch a glimpse of your hands when you’re having a one-on-one, casual conversation. When you are talking about rising prices, do you raise your hand? When you are talking about a merger, do your hands converge towards the center? How about that huge fish you caught last weekend? Do your hands almost involuntarily reflect the size of the fish? (was the fish really that big?) The amazing thing is that you already use your hands naturally in 1-1 conversations to emphasize what your saying. So naturally, in fact, that you don’t even notice yourself using them! Once you see your own hands in action, gesturing will come easier and more naturally.
2. Stay in the “Strike Zone.” Another rule of thumb is to make sure your gestures occur within the “strike zone.” For a presenter, this is typically the area above the waist and below the shoulders, but may be broader if speaking to a larger audience. Any gesture you do below the waistline may look like you’re only giving half effort and may be perceived as tentative or reluctant. Gestures above the shoulders may be perceived as out of control, over the top, or fabricated. When you’re speaking about something that requires a big spread of your hands, go for it. But when speaking about business topics, staying within the strike zone is a safe bet.
3. Use Them and Lose Them – Finding Neutral. A lot of awkwardness occurs when you don’t know what to do with your hands when you’re not using them to gesture. This often results in several variations of self hand-holding, some of which are comical. For example, hands clasped behind the back (what we call the “Felon”), hands clasped in front (the “Fig Leaf”), hands flipping randomly at sides (“Sea World”), and finger tips to finger tips (“Spider in the Mirror”). You also see hands on hips, hands in pockets, hands clapping randomly, and arms crossed over the chest. To an audience, a lot of these positions are translated as insecurity, nervousness, or lack of confidence. Some of these may even make people think you have something to hide or that you don’t want to engage them in conversation. Remember, your behaviors drive the impression your audience has of you. So, what is the most confident and professional use of your hands while presenting? Use them and lose them. Use your hands to gesture naturally while presenting. When you stop talking, as simple as it sounds, let them relax at your sides. How long do they stay at your sides? Only a second or so. As soon as you start talking again, use your hands to animate and describe what you are saying. Letting your hands hang naturally by your side when not gesturing is a behavior that carries no negative impression. If anything, it carries no impression at all – it’s neutral. It isn’t distracting, doesn’t indicate nervousness (unless your hands are clenched at each side), and it doesn’t make you seem closed off to conversation or approach. Finding this neutral stance in between gestures may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it is essential to looking collected and confident.
Stick within these quick tips and you’ll reduce the risk of distracting your audience with repetitive or tentative gestures and allow them to fully appreciate your message.