Discussion – 


How to use my hands when public speaking?

What do I do with my hands when I present? 

One of the curious aspects of public speaking is that speakers suddenly don’t know where to put their hands! Should you clasp them? Put them behind your back? Stroke your chin thoughtfully?

Using your hands effectively while speaking in front of an audience can help to enhance your message and make you appear more confident and engaging.

Here are the most common tips for using your hands effectively while public speaking:

Keep your hands relaxed: Tight or clenched fists can make you appear tense or nervous. Try to keep your hands relaxed and open.

Use gestures to emphasize points: Gestures can help to illustrate your points and make your message more vivid and engaging. Use gestures naturally and avoid overusing them.

Use your hands to show confidence: Avoid fidgeting or playing with objects, as this can be distracting.

Use your hands to add emphasis: Use your hands to emphasize key points or add emphasis to your words. For example, you can use a fist to make a strong point or open your palms to show openness or honesty.

Overall, the most important thing is to use your hands naturally and in a way that feels comfortable and authentic to you. With practice, you can develop your own style and find ways to use your hands effectively while speaking in public.

But let’s go a bit deeper into the science

What exactly is a Gesture?

We all know what a gesture is right?  However, it’s important that we know exactly what we’re talking about when we use the word “gesture.” We know of course that it has something to do with our hands. But there’s a technical distinction we need to address.

Emblems are any gestures that stand in for words. We can directly and pretty quickly translate them. A “thumbs up” gesture and the “shhhh” gesture are both emblems. They don’t need to be accompanied by words. And we can easily tell what they mean without much context.

man thumbs up

Illustrators, on the other hand, don’t take the place of words the way emblems do. They accompany words. Ekman and Friesen say illustrators are “intimately related on a moment-to-moment basis with speech, with phrasing, content, voice . . . etc.”

So when you give a presentation, the hand gestures you are using are, by definition, illustrators. They are hand motions which accompany your speech as part of the communication process.

Now that we’ve got the definition settled, let’s look at some research for how to use those gestures, or illustrators, more effectively.

Using open body language: Keep your arms and hands open and away from your body to show that you are approachable and open to ideas. Avoid crossing your arms or holding them tightly against your body, as this can signal that you are closed off or defensive.

Using hand gestures to emphasize points: Use your hands to add emphasis to your words and help convey your message. For example, you can use a chopping motion to emphasize a point, or use a sweeping motion to indicate a broad concept.

Using facial expressions: Your face is a powerful tool for expressing emotions and connecting with your audience. Use facial expressions to show enthusiasm, interest, or concern as appropriate.

Moving around the stage: If you are speaking on a stage or in front of a large audience, consider moving around the stage to engage different parts of the audience and add visual interest. Just be sure to move naturally and avoid pacing or fidgeting.

Speak with Your Palms Up

A crucial thing to remember is that our palms are deeply connected to our brains and our perceptions of others. Because of this, presenters who want to gain the attention and trust of the audience should speak as often as possible with their palms facing up.

This is a form of “open” body language which communicates that the speaker is trustworthy and has nothing to hide. Many people claim it is a primitive sign that means “no tools, no weapons.”

It is a symbol of vulnerability and trust to which the audience responds favorably. So as a presenter, let your audience see your palms when you gesture.

Use Gestures When You Get Stuck

We usually think that gestures just make the speaker look good. However, there is some evidence to suggest that using gesures actually allos us tho think better.

One study asked speakers to tell a story without the help of their hands. Speakers who didn’t use their hands used more filler words like “uh.”

So when you use gestures when presenting, you help your thought and speech flow more smoothly and quickly. All the more reason to use them freely.

The Audience Loves When You Gesture

Vanessa Van Edwards compared TED talks of the same time length by average number of views and average number of hand gestures during the talk.

There was a positive corelation between popularity and the number of hand gestures used. The most popular presenters use many more gestures.

But why? Perhaps a combination of communication and movement. Hand gestures add to the communication by helping to fill in gaps and aid in learning.

Van Edwards says, “When really charismatic leaders use hand gestures, the brain is super happy . . . because it’s getting two explanations in one, and the brain loves that.”

 Keep It Natural

“Just act natural” is usually the advice given to any speaker. If you try to use something invented or unnatural, it usually won’t sit well with the audience. Think for example about Bill Clinton’s famous pattern of gesturing with his thumb. It’s not something people normally do. So instead of feeling powerful, it just feels unrelatable.

Instead, use gestures that you typically use in everyday conversation. But use them with a little more intention and try to execute them in the strike zone—which is the area between your shoulders and the top of your hips. Van Edwards calls the strike zone “the sweet spot.” It is easily visible for your audience and feels natural. Anything bigger or broader can start to get distracting or feel more like theater.

Gesturing will always be an important part of presenting. Now that you know why we do it and how it helps both you and the audience, I have one last piece of advice. Don’t overthink it. Your gestures are part of the unique and beautiful way you share your thoughts with the world. As long as you aren’t confusing, offending, or distracting your audience with your hands (and you’d have to work pretty hard to do any of those), your gestures are probably functioning just as they should to help you communicate.