"What should I do with my hands?"
That's the question speech coaches are asked as much as any other by people who are self-conscious about speaking in public.
The answer is, not much.
Let me explain.
People figuratively—and sometimes literally—tie themselves up like pretzels worrying about how they should stand, move, and gesture as a speaker. They've heard that nonverbal communication and appropriate body language are part of effective public speaking techniques, but somehow they just can't get it right.
I once watched a judge standing in front of an audience settle himself into an odd position with his shoulders, arms, and hands all seemingly intertwined, because he'd apparently acquired those body parts in the moments immediately preceding his speech and hadn’t a clue what they were for.
During the 45 minutes or so that this distinguished jurist spoke, I didn’t pay the scantest attention to what he was saying. I just kept staring at him, conjuring up dark reasons why he’d gone to law school all those years ago.
Obviously, if your audience is acting like this because of the way you hold yourself when you speak, your influence is not going to be what you’d been hoping for.
So why do so many of us leave our normal physical expressiveness behind when we speak in front of others?
Speaking in Blissful Ignorance
The reason, I think, has to do with context. We're usually quite comfortable with our physicality at work and in other everyday situations. But we suddenly become extremely self-conscious about our public speaking and presentation skills when we have to give a talk or lecture. Yet there’s absolutely no reason why this should be the case!
What we should aim for instead as speakers 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 a perfectly simple reason: our audience members haven’t the slightest interest in them.
For our listeners as well as ourselves, it’s all a question of focus. If you are utterly focused on your message and getting it across, that’s all you’ll have time for at the lectern, boardroom table, or client's office. There’ll be no time whatsoever to regret the fact that you're not an Olympic gymnast with complete mastery over your body. If you’re engrossed in the critical points you're trying to convey, 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, a repetitive gesture or odd stance will pull their attention away from your message, just as happened with me when I was listening to the judge.)
Body language is an amazing tool for engaging, persuasing, and inspiring audiences. For great tips on using nonverbal communication effectively, see my e-book Body Language to Look and Feel Confident.
Gesture when You Can't Not Do So Any Longer
Believe it or not, the most natural position for a speaker from an audience’s perspective is with one’s arms hanging down neutrally at the sides. Your arms and hands can then be brought into play when a gesture is absolutely needed—in other words, 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 neutrally 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.
Therein lies the natural and supported hand movement.
So, here’s the General Rule to remember about hands and gestures:
Any movement that reinforces or amplifies what you're saying is okay, and any movement that attracts attention away from your message is not okay.
Keep this rule in mind, and you won’t find yourself pulling your nose every third sentence, or making uplifting hand gestures that seem to be saying, “I need to throw up, but nothing’s happening!”
Now, go forth and gesture naturally and appropriately.
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