Public Speaking: What Do I Do With My Hands?

Public Speaking: What Do I Do With My Hands?

By Diane DiResta

The question I hear frequently from audiences is “What do I do with my hands?” It’s amazing. We communicate daily and never think about our hands until we stand up. As soon as we become public speakers it’s as if we discover theses long appendages scraping the floor.

Body language is more than half the message so how you use your hands is important. And gestures are a vital part of the message. Consider this: Have you ever seen an enthusiastic person stand at attention as they share their exciting news? Nobody stands stiffly when they’re expressing emotion. How do you gesture in a way that’s effective yet not over the top?

Here are some of the most common mistakes people make when they gesture:

Don’t Do This

Figleaf Position. This is where you clasp your hands in front of you. It looks sedate-not powerful.

Wooden Soldier. This presenter has both hands at the sides. If you start with this position, move out of it quickly or else you’ll look stiff and unapproachable.

At Ease. Both hands are held behind the back in military fashion. If you maintain this position people will soon wonder if you have hands. Why are you hiding them?

Hands in Pockets. I don’t see this posture as often. The word must have gotten out. If you keep both hands in your pockets, you’ll lose energy and expressiveness.

The Juggler. Here is where your hands are in perpetual motion and never come to a stop. The impression is nervousness and it’s also distracting to watch.

Pointing Finger. Beware of pointing at the audience. A pointing finger can be perceived as accusatory, or critical. Instead, use an open handed gesture to refer to an audience member. It’s warmer and more neutral.

Fidgeting. Overall fidgeting communicates nervousness. It’s your body telling you to move your hands. So stop holding back Gesture, but do so effectively.

Do This:

Above the Waist. As soon as possible, bring your hands above the waist. Hands below the waist are perceived as tentative. Your power space is between your waist and your face. Keep your gestures in this box. When Bill Clinton was running for president, he used wide, sweeping gestures that made him look untrustworthy. His coaches told him to gesture within the box. It became known as the Clinton box.

Find a Rest Position. When you start flailing and over gesticulating, it’s time to come to a stop. Find a resting position. It may be one hand on top of the over with your elbows at your waist. Think of the resting position as home base. You can continue to return to it when you’re hands are moving too much or you need to take a pause.

Hold the Ball. A powerful position is to hold your hands above the waist as if you’re holding a basketball. Steve Jobs used this gesture.

Count Off. When you have 3 or more agenda items, you can tick off the points on your fingers as if you’re going through a list.

Palms Up. To convey honesty, hold your hands waist high and turn your palms up. (Don’t shrug your shoulders or you’ll look unsure).

Palms Down. Keep your palms waist high and turn your palms down so that the tops of your hands are visible. Now make a downward movement. This conveys authority and can be good for quieting a crowd. President Obama used this gesture.

Steepling. Position your hands at waist level and bring your hands together with just the fingertips touching. This posture communicates confidence but can also convey authority. Use this gesture sparingly. It can be meant to intimidate or establish dominance.

Consider Culture. Body language has different meanings in certain cultures. For example, if you’re speaking in Brazil, do not use the A-OK hand gesture. It’s considered an obscenity. Realize that not all cultures value gesturing as much as in the U.S.  The Mediterranean and Hispanic cultures are expressive and use a lot of gestures. In Asia, Skandinavia and Germanic cultures, they use fewer hand movements.  When I was first starting out in my business, I had a sales call at the United Nations. The person interviewing me was from Germany. When I gestured her eyes would look at my hands. I’d make another gesture, and she would be riveted on my hands. Very quickly, I put my hands in my lap. For her, gesturing was a distraction.

Why Use Gestures? There is research that demonstrates the impact of gestures. Harvard Business Review interviewed Professor Josef Cornelissen of Erasmus University.

Erasmus University conducted a study whereby they asked experienced investors to watch a video of entrepreneurs pitching a medical device. They hired actors to play the entrepreneurs. The result was that the Venture Capitalists were more interested in the presenters who used gestures to explain the idea than when they used anecdotes, metaphors and other rhetoric.

This flies in the face of current emphasis on storytelling. What the researchers discovered was that gesturing made the product more concrete, helping investors to understand the product. Gesturing also conveys excitement, passion being a quality that investors value. However, too much gesturing can work against the presenter, making it look like pantomime. Use a few strategic gestures to add impact and influence to your presentations.

If gestures don’t come naturally to you. Practice some of the gestures mentioned above.

Oractice but be natural. Use these tips and gesture often and you’ll win over the audience hands down. #publicspeaking #gestures #bodylanguage


Diane DiResta, CSP, is Founder and CEO of DiResta Communications, Inc., a New York City consultancy serving business leaders who deliver high stakes presentations— whether one-to-one, in front of a crowd or from an electronic platform.   DiResta is the author of Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch, and Pizzazz, an Amazon.com category best-seller and has spoken on 4 continents. She has unique ability to get to the core of the message and translate complexity into simplicity. Learn more at her website.

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1 Response

  1. Very useful article. I believe that I don’t seem to be making too many faux pas, but it’s nice to have it confirmed…

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