About that glorious, juicy variety that I told you I love. It really is a joy, coaching such diverse professionals to present themselves and their ideas with pizzazz.

Last week it was therapists. And corporate executives in consumer products. This week I have an IT expert on my coaching calendar. A college admissions coach. And auto repair shop service consultants. Like I said, diverse.

They have a lot in common though. I did fifteen coaching sessions last week and in at least a dozen of them, somebody asked, “What am I supposed to do with my hands?”

It’s kind of funny. We use our hands naturally to communicate. Gestures emphasize, elaborate, enumerate, and indicate size or number.

Some of us are more animated than others; our gestures are bigger and more frequent. But almost everyone uses some gestures when they’re talking. It’s very 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 natural for you.

There are, however, some gestures to remove from your repertoire.

  • Wispy, floating, continuous gestures will hurt you when it comes to credibility. Strong gestures have a beginning and an end; the hands come to rest. And then gesture again.
  • Palms-up gestures are 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, a palms-down gesture works better.
  • People generally don’t like to be pointed at; soften your hand if you’re gesturing toward somebody, so you don’t look aggressive or scolding.
  • We recognize nervous gestures as (surprise!) nervous. So it won’t serve you well to fiddle with jewelry, a pen, or your hair. The audience easily picks up your discomfort. And it makes them uncomfortable too.
  •  Gestures are most effective when your hands are above your waist and below your shoulders. Waving your hands around up near your head creates an odd impression.
  • Your hands don’t belong in your pockets; you certainly shouldn’t be rattling keys or coins. People are more likely to trust us, non-consciously, 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 cold. The folded arms lock up your hands and interfere with gesture; it’s best to avoid that.
  • Some speakers stand with their arms extended down in front of them and their hands clasped. It looks defensive (it’s known as the fig leaf position), awkward, and low-energy.

You’ll be a more effective speaker when you use gesture well. And the way to do that is to notice what you naturally do with your hands. Pay attention to others too—in formal presentations and friendly conversations. What happens to their hands? And what impression do you pick up as a result?

You know how 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 these non-verbals. We’re reading the message their hands or face or their whole body conveys.

If you have to choose, believe their body over their words. For now, watch how your own physicality supports your message. And  share your observations in a comment below.