Most days we don’t think about what we do with our hands. We use them when we need them – to get dressed, to drink a cup of coffee, to pick up a bag, to hold a pen, to open a door, to shake hands, to hug someone. We also use our hands naturally in everyday conversation.
However, as soon as we’re put on a stage, we suddenly don’t know what to do with them. It’s as though our hands have just appeared out of thin air and have become awkward, meaningless elements that we don’t know how to manage.
Recently, while preparing for a presentation, a client asked me, “what do I do with my hands?”
In some ways it’s a very strange question. In others it’s completely normal. When we’re nervous, worrying about forgetting the next point in the presentation, wondering whether the technology will fail or seeing our boss step into the room, we can become rigid and overthink everything we do. Strange habits creep in, or we can become rigid in our movements.
Why does it matter what we do with our hands? Well, our hands (and the rest of the body) are an integral part of our presentation. Afterall, our audience sees us as well as hears us. Therefore, any hand gestures and movements should enhance the message and help the audience follow. We don’t want to distract our audience with overly-choreographed or awkward movements.
So, what should you do with your hands? I suggest the following:
- Be open. When you use a closed posture (arms crossed or hands clasped in front of you) you are telling the audience that you are hiding something, are defensive, not interested, not being sincere or scared. By contrast,
if you adopt an open, neutral pose, with your hands by your sides, you appear more genuine, honest, and engaging.
From this default position you can easily gesture in an open manner, with your palms open. For example, you can indicate an individual in the audience with an open palm, rather than a finger pointing. Once you’ve finished the movement, you can return to your neutral, open pose. It may feel a bit awkward at first, but with practice, this pose will become your default.
- Be natural. Use natural hand movements to illustrate your message. Think about words or concepts in your presentation which can be illustrated with some hand gestures. For example, if you have three points to make, show three fingers on your hand. Or if you want to show two sides to an argument you can use one hand, then the other. One word of warning here – avoid over-choreographing your presentation. Every word doesn’t need a hand movement, you can make your audience dizzy this way! If you over-choreograph your presentation and it doesn’t feel natural to you, it won’t feel natural to the audience. It will become distracting.
Experiment with some natural hand movements, but if in doubt, do without.
- Be aware. We all have our own natural way of using our hands to illustrate our speech. However, when we become nervous, these habits can become overly-repetitive and distracting to the audience. For example, you could touch your nose, fix your hair, use chopping movements when you make a point or wave your hands in a circular motion. Once you become aware of any natural movements and those that are too repetitive, try to keep them to a minimum. This will ensure your audience doesn’t become distracted by hair twirling, nose scratching, flapping arms, etc..
When you learn to use your hands to illustrate your message, the audience will remember it better. Using the three tips above, you will no longer need to worry about what you need to do with your hands. Remember, your hand gestures and movements should add to your message in a natural, open manner.