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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

What Should I Do With My Hands?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Hands, body language, gesture, presentation skills

If this is one of your worries about giving presentations, there’s a very easy answer: do nothing at all. Luckily, your hands are quite capable of taking care of themselves.

Hands – or any other part of the body – are usually a problem only when your attention is in the wrong place. If your attention is fully on speaking with sincerity and passion, your hands are very likely to support your words entirely of their own accord.

Unless, that is, your brain has become used to sending them a message to “Stay put, or else!” Like maltreated children who are constantly told they will be put on the Naughty Step for Being Bad, the hands can get timid about expressing themselves. But they’ll probably still try!

Many people I’ve worked with on presentations seem to have a fixed idea that using your hands as you speak is a Bad Thing (“Oh, I’ve been told I wave them about too much…”).  As a result, the Bad Children message from the brain reaches part of the way down their arms – while the hands twitch rebelliously at their sides as they speak. If your brain is instructing your elbows to clamp themselves to your body while your hands flail outwards from the wrists, you look like a toddler pretending to be a penguin.  (Trust me, I’ve seen it in the business world many times…)

I have a feeling that video is to blame. Some trainers like to video their participants, then expose each individual to a playback with group critique. Cue the vultures’ descent…. It’s an exercise that can encourage less than sympathetic comment – and often the harshest critic is the presenter themselves.

Not surprisingly, this can engender intense self-consciousness about every aspect of their physicality, and ‘waving my hands about’ can top a long list of concerns for ever more. I don’t think this is useful - and I’ll talk more about my reasons in a future post.

But whether it stems from being videoed or not, in my experience most businesspeople set their default levels of physical expressiveness far too low. And one thing feeds on another – if your body is being under-expressive, your voice will follow suit. And that will translate itself into your commitment to your words, and the general energy you exude and that your audience receives.

Lower energy means you will be perceived as less committed to your message than higher energy. Most people I work with are terrified of going ‘over the top’: using too much physical and vocal energy. So I often encourage them to do exactly that: go ‘over the top’ just to see how it feels – and to test their peers’ reaction.

It would almost be true to say that in all my years of working with businesspeople, I have yet to witness anyone actually overdoing the energy.  (If I’m scrupulously honest, I can remember perhaps two exceptions in over 20 years.) And peers observing have never disagreed with my feedback.  They tend to tell their newly-energised colleague: “No, that’s not too much at all.  That would work fine in a real situation.”  (I don’t twist their arms, I promise.) Which means you can almost certainly afford to give things far more oomph than you think.

So if you worry about your hands, stop it. As you speak, relax your shoulders and allow your elbows to come away from your torso if they want to. You’ll probably find that the more you commit to the meaning of your message – and therefore focus on getting it to mean something to your audience – the more your hands will take care of themselves.

For goodness’ sake though, don’t try to ‘manufacture’ hand gestures. There is a lot of rubbish written about body language that implies it’s an exact science, and that certain hand gestures are intrinsically good to use because they ‘mean’ a certain thing. Not so. And as human beings, we are all pretty astute at telling when someone has been over-schooled in gestures that look anything but sincere (they’re often politicians).

What we want to see in a good speaker is congruence (James Borg is helpful on this in his book Body Language). If the hands are saying “I’m in a straightjacket and I’m not allowed out,” we’ll detect that there’s something about the message that’s being held back.  So it won’t land with us properly. If the hands are saying “I’ve been taught that this gesture shows sincerity, and this gesture means I am truly empathising with you,” the chances are we will smell a rat.

So don’t focus on expressing sincerity, or empathy, or whatever it is you want to convey.

Focus instead on being sincere or empathetic in that moment. Invest your message with your own genuine feelings, and allow your body – not just hands, but eyes, feet, everything, to show those feelings of their own accord.

Your body is often wiser than you are. It will tell the right story – if you let it.

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