The question I'm most often asked by people who are self-consciousness about speaking in public is: “What should I do with my hands?”
The answer is, not much.
With regard to nonverbal communication in public speaking, people worry far too much about how they should stand, move, and gesture. Rather than being productive, such concern usually leads to body language that's unnatural and calls attention to itself. Obviously, if your audience is acting like this because of the way you hold yourself and move, your influence is not going to be what you’d been hoping for.
So what's the secret of using natural, strong gestures in public speaking? It all comes down to applying appropriate behavior to the situation at hand.
Context Is Key
Many of us, of course, don't act appropriately at all when we speak in front of audiences (especially large audiences), leaving our normal physical expressiveness behind. The reason has to do with context. We're usually comfortable in our physicality in everyday situations. But give us the task of speaking in public, and we're suddenly extremely self-conscious about how we stand and move.
There’s absolutely no reason why this should be so. Instead of self-absorption, what we should aim for is a kind of blissful ignorance where our bodies are concerned. In other words, we should forget about our hands, feet, and other appendages for the perfectly simple reason that audiences haven’t the slightest interest in them.
A Question of Focus
For listeners as well as ourselves, it’s all a question of focus. If you're completely focused on your message and getting it across to listeners, your gestures will naturally support what you’re saying. And it’s exactly the same for your audience. When the engine of your speech is running smoothly, your listeners will hear that hum, and they’ll be with you all the way. (Of course, an overly repetitive gesture or odd movement will pull their attention away from your message.)
So here's a secret where effective gestures are concerned: The most natural position for speaking in front of an audience is with one's hands at one's sides. Your arms should simply hang neutrally. From there, you can bring your hands into play when a gesture is absolutely needed--when you positively can’t avoid it any longer. That gesture will look necessary and true to your audience.
Try it right now: Stand up, and let your arms hang still at your sides. It may feel awkward at first, but it looks perfectly natural from the audience’s perspective. Now start to speak, bringing your hands up to make a gesture only when it feels exactly right to do so. That's a natural hand movement that fully supports what you're saying.
A General Rule About Movement and Gestures
Here, then, is a General Rule to remember about hands movement and gestures: Any movement that reinforces or amplifies your message is good, and any movement that detracts from your message is not. Keep this rule in mind, and you won’t find yourself pulling on your ear every third sentence, or making uplifting hand gestures that seem to be saying, “I need to throw up, but nothing’s coming!”
Now, go forth and gesture naturally and appropriately.