by Steve Adubato, PhD
Q—When I’m speaking in public, what do I do with my hands?
A—USE THEM! Hand gestures can be a powerful communication tool that helps support and bring words to life. Using your hands is natural. Think about it. When you are in an animated conversation with a friend or colleague, what are your hands doing? They are moving and gesturing. You don’t think about it. The more you think about your hands, the more awkward your presentation will be.
Q—Why do so many people have problems using their hands in public speeches?
A—One of the biggest reasons is that as students, we were often told by teachers in public speaking classes not to “speak with our hands.” That’s bad advice. Too many teachers are mistakenly concerned about their student’s hands distracting the audience. This approach has produced countless professionals who don’t know what to do with their hands. They are convinced that using their hands somehow violates an unwritten communication rule. That’s just not true. You can use your hands to add to your presentation without becoming a raving lunatic whose hands are flailing all over the place. Great communication requires the use of your entire body, which includes your hands.
Q—What are the best hand gestures?
A—Again, those that are most natural, but let’s get more specific. The open palm is an invitation to your audience to participate. This is better than pointing your finger, which can often put people on the defensive. Other great gestures revolve around illustration. If you are talking about an object that is really big, use your hands by putting them far apart. Conversely, if you are communicating that your efforts came “this close,” take your thumb and index finger and put them about an inch apart. Or, if you are talking about a subject you’ve been thinking a great deal about, take your hand and touch your head. These hand gestures are subtle and natural. You shouldn’t be thinking about which hand gestures to use when communicating.
Q—What’s the best way to practice using my hands?
A—Put your hands in a position to be used. Don’t lock them on to the podium. Don’t put them behind your back. Don’t clasp them tightly below your waist. Most important, don’t put them in your pockets. Instead, use “soft hands.” Put them out in front of you with your fingertips lightly touching each other. Now here’s the trick. Get into your topic. The more into it you are, the more your hands will follow. Heightened energy and passion will only ensure that your hands will be in sync with your presentation.
The worst thing you can do is to try to practice in the following fashion. Assume you are making the statement, “I have two points I need to make,” and then tell yourself to put up two fingers. That’s unnatural and uncomfortable for you, and worse, for your audience. If you could see yourself giving a presentation on videotape, much of this would be clear. If you were really into your presentation, you would see your hands doing things you wouldn’t remember after the fact. That’s when you know you are really communicating.