You may have the same question. I wasn’t surprised when it came up in a workshop last week; I hear it over and over again.
“What am I supposed to do with my hands?”
It’s funny that would-be speakers are flummoxed by those things dangling at the end of their arms. You know, the ones we use in every conversation to emphasize, elaborate, enumerate, and indicate just how big (or small) something was.
Some of us are more animated than others of course; our gestures are bigger, maybe more forceful or frequent. But almost everyone uses some gestures when they’re talking. It’s natural to convey additional information with your hands.
So when speakers ask me, “What should I do with my hands?” I say use them! And use them in a way that’s instinctive for you.
There are, however, a few gestures best removed from your repertoire.
- Wispy, floating hands that never come to rest will hurt your credibility. Strong gestures have a beginning and an end; the hands stop moving. And then gesture again.
- People generally feel uncomfortable, even resentful if you point at them; soften your hand when you’re gesturing toward somebody, so you don’t seem aggressive or scolding.
- We recognize nervous gestures as (surprise!) nervous. So it won’t serve you well to fiddle with your jewelry, a pen, or your hair. The audience easily picks up your discomfort. And mirror neurons mean you’ll make them uncomfortable too.
- Gesturing with your palms up is receptive. If you want your audience to answer a question—or ask you one—invite participation with your palms up. When you want to wrap things up or have the last word, palms-down works better.
- Gestures are most effective when your hands are above your waist and below your shoulders. Waving your hands around up near your head creates a goofy impression. And if your hands are down low, it shifts your posture so you seem less energetic.
- Your hands don’t belong in your pockets; you shouldn’t be rattling keys or coins. It’s not really conscious, but people are more likely to trust us when they can see our hands, so you’ll also avoid putting them behind your back.
- If you fold your arms across your chest, people will read it as closed and defensive although in truth, you may just be chilly. The folded arms lock up your hands and interfere with gesture; best to avoid that.
- Some speakers stand with their arms extended down in front of them and their hands clasped. It looks defensive, awkward, and low-energy. Speaking coaches call it the fig leaf–for obvious reasons.
You’ll be a more effective speaker when you use gestures well, and not only because they clarify or reinforce your message.
In a study of Ted talks focusing on the hands, Science of People found that gestures literally made a speaker more popular. A lot more popular.
They counted speakers’ gestures and viewers’ eyeballs. And the results were dramatic.
The least-watched TED talks garnered an average of 124,000 views. And the speakers used, on average, 272 hand gestures during their 18-minute talks.
The top TED talks had an average of 7,360,000 views. And the speakers used an average of 465 hand gestures in the same 18 minutes. That’s almost twice as many gestures as the speakers in the least-watched talks.
Gesturing more often dramatically increased the speakers’ charisma. The two main factors in charisma ratings were hand gestures and vocal variety.
To get comfortable using more gestures when you’re in front of an audience, start to notice what you naturally do with your hands.
Pay attention to others too—in formal presentations and ordinary, everyday conversations. What happens to their hands? And what impression do you pick up as a result?
You know how sometimes you’ll just get a “vibe” from someone? When we draw a conclusion that’s separate from—or even in opposition to—what they’re saying, it has to do with non-verbal cues. We’re reading the message their hands, for instance, convey.
If there’s a mismatch, believe their body over their words. And watch how your own physicality supports your message. But first, comment below to share your experience. What do you do with your hands?