The biggest problem many presenters have – experienced as well as newcomers – is knowing what to do with their hands. They worry endlessly about whether they’re gesturing too much or too little, and where to put their hands when they’re not gesturing.
Using your hands when speaking is natural and normal. When people carry on a one-to-one conversation they gesture as a matter of course. In fact, it looks strange if they don’t – as if they’re not really interested in what they’re talking about. The more passionate we are about something the more animated we are in our gestures.
It’s the same when giving a presentation, which is essentially a conversation with several people. You need to gesture, because if you don’t you come across as if you don’t really care about the subject matter.
Gestures need to be meaningful not arbitrary
But you need to get the balance right. While you don’t want hands whizzing round like windmills in a gale you do want to demonstrate energy and enthusiasm. Too much gesturing, too little gesturing – both are bad practice when it comes to presenting.
What’s most important is that you move your hands and arms in a meaningful way – so they match the content of your presentation. When gestures are motivated by what you want to get across they look natural and authentic. But when they’re arbitrary, and don’t seem to fit with your message, they can undermine the credibility of your presentation. Here are 10 Tips for using your hands when presenting.
1) Gesture normally
The best presentations are relaxed and natural, so gesture as you would if you were have an informal conversation with friends or colleagues. Unless you’re an experienced presenter, it’s better to keep things spontaneous, or it can end up looking contrived. The secret is to prepare well, so you’re not having to worry about whether you’ll remember your material, then just allow the movement of your arms and hands to flow with what you’re saying.
2) Avoid ‘velcro’ arms
Sometimes you see speakers whose hands are tight to the side of their body – as if attached by Velcro. This limits the range of possible movement. Their gestures, as a result, are small and restrained. Sometimes the ‘Velcro’ only goes as far as the elbow, allowing the lower arms to move. This can make them look like puppets. On some people it goes all the way down to the wrist, so only the hands move. Because the gestures appear timid, the impact is negative.
3) Establish a balanced resting position
You don’t want to gesture all the time, so you need a resting position your hands know to go to when not in action. The best place is over the belly button, gently touching or with one lightly cradled in the other.
4) Steer clear of the ‘footballer’ pose
Crossing your hands in front of your groin – like a footballer facing a free kick on goal – looks defensive. The same goes for crossing your arms over your body or folding them.
5) Gesture between hip and shoulder
Don’t let your hands drop below the waist – gesturing can seem ineffectual. Equally, don’t raise your hands above your shoulders – it looks slightly ‘manic’.
6) Handcuffed? Not me
Putting your hands behind your back has the advantage of looking formal, but can evoke thoughts in some people’s minds of teachers, the military or the Prince of Wales. It can also look as if you’d been handcuffed behind your back.
7) Express yourself with your hands
Try telling a story without using your hands – it’s virtually impossible. Natural, dynamic gestures make it easier to express yourself emotionally.
8) Beware ‘emotional leakage’
The nervousness we feel when presenting can often be revealed in nervous hand mannerisms, such as rubbing, ‘washing’ or fiddling with a ring. These suggest that we’re uncomfortable, undermine our credibility and must be avoided.
9) Keep palms downwards
Holding your palm upwards is a submissive gesture, conveying supplication – as if you’re saying ‘please’ or ‘sorry’. Imagine you’re holding a box or a ball: never let your hands turn out more than 45 degrees from that position. Gestures in which the palms are face down or only partially revealed are perceived as being stronger.
10) Use ‘Power Tells’
Strong, dynamic gestures – called ‘power tells’ by body language expert Peter Collett – enable you to emphasise key points. The two-handed stab, with fingers pushing forward, can be especially effective in driving your message home.