What Should I Do With My Hands When I’m Presenting?

Woman presenting

“You play the hand you’re dealt.  I think the game’s worthwhile” CS Lewis

One of the most common questions we get asked during our presentation skills workshops is ‘what should I do with my hands?’  There are many practitioners who recommend that people place their arms and hands at the sides of the body as this a natural stance and is less likely to distract their audience.  Our view is that most people both look and feel incredibly unnatural when their hands are left hanging limply at their sides.  And anyway, as presenters, aren’t we supposed to be the focus of the audience’s attention?

Almost all of us naturally use our hands and gesture when we speak.  Indeed, most of us even gesture when we’re talking on the telephone – even though we know the other person can’t see us.  Taking this a step further, research* amongst congenitally blind children and adolescents has shown that they gesture in the same way as the sighted counterparts in the study.  *Jana Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow, Indiana University, USA. (1998)

So our view is that we should harness our hands’ natural inclination to want to be part of the action.  So how do we do this without coming across as one of those guys (they always seem to be men) on airport runways directing airplanes with table-tennis looking paddles.

Here are 5 great ways to use your hands to add impact to your presentations.

1. Emphasising a message

This is the most natural way to use gestures.  Some simple examples include using expansive hand gestures to reinforce that something is or was big/significant/impressive etc.  E.g. ‘The team made a huge effort ’.  Conversely you can draw your hands together to each other, or pinch the fingers on one hand together, to stress that something is or was small/insignificant.  E.g. ‘The different in price was negligible’.

Gesturing can also be used to emphasise a point on a Power- Point® slide, or even on a handout.  Physically referring to a part on a graph, a bullet point, or a section of a diagram will draw the audience’s attention to it and therefore help it stand out from the rest of your content.

2. Picture painting

Many people are highly visual and so like their information presented to them in a visual format.  Gestures are a terrific tool that presenters can use to create a visual representation of what they’re talking about.  Think about the following phrases – ‘There were 3 steps that we went through’, or ‘People went above & beyond what we expected’, or ‘He flat out refused to give his approval’.  Language like this is crying out to be reinforced visually so use your imagination and let your inner artistry come out.

3. Reinforcing a story

Gestures can help reinforce the passage of time.  The trick however is to ‘see time’ from your audience’s perspective – which means doing the mirror image of what you would naturally do.  This can be tricky at first!  But with a little practice it will become second nature.  For example you could say the following ‘So we stared by exploring the market (gesture to your right); we then looked at what our competitors are doing (gesture centre); and then finally we fine-tuned our product offering (gesture to your left)’.  This can also be combined with movement within the room or even seated – but more about that in another post!

4. Connecting with your audience

This can be as simple as opening your arms wide and showing the palms of your hands at the start of a presentation or meeting (yes this can be done sitting down also) to welcome people and to kick off proceedings.  You can use a similar gesture to invite and encourage questions from the group.  When referring to an individual or specific group within the audience you can gesture towards them – though don’t point as this can come across as rude!  The same applies when you want to ask a question or illicit input from someone within the audience.

5. Anchoring

Some people seem to be born gesticulators.  Indeed their gesturing is so energetic that if we tied their hands behind their back they probably wouldn’t be able to speak.  If you’re someone like this then anchoring your hands can be a terrific technique for creating emphasis (because emphasis is created by change).  The best time for this approach is when you’re summarising a section within your presentation, recapping on our entire presentation, and at the close of your presentation. Because you’re momentarily doing something different, your content at that point will stand out from the rest of your information and so stick in the minds’ of your audience.

Our belief is that gesturing and using one’s hands are great ways to help bring your message to life and to connect with your audience.  But how much or how little you do it is up to you.  It’s crucial that whatever you do feels comfortable so you look naturally confident and in control.  Don’t force it and don’t script it.  But do have fun with it .

p.s. remember it’s your personality that powers your presentation performance.

 

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