Hands On Speaking: What Are You Supposed to Do with Your Hands?


7 minute read.


Here is a common question I get when I’m asked about public speaking. What am I supposed to do with my hands?!


Well, I have a question for you? Why do so many people have a problem using their hands in speeches? It may surprise you to find out why. But it can be very simple to overcome.


Let’s find the answer together.



Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Awkwardness


Hands can be awkward when you are talking to someone, and you don’t always know what to do with them. Am I right?


What is the first thing you think of doing with your hands when you are just standing around in a one-to-one conversation? Do jazz hands come to mind? Probably not, unless you’re talking about the latest show choir number with your theater group.



Here is what most people do:

  1. Put them in your pockets.
  2. Cross your arms and hide your hands inside your biceps.
  3. Put them behind your back.
  4. Fold your hands in front.

Why would you do one of these four things? Because in a private conversation, no one is looking at you except the person you are talking to, and you don’t really care if they see your hands or not. But at the same time, you don’t want to look stupid just standing there with your hands hanging down at the sides of your body, so you try to hide them in some way or keep them out of the way.


So, what do you do with your hands when you are speaking in front of an audience? And especially if you don’t have a lectern to hide behind.


The answer? USE THEM!


But the secret is in HOW you use them.



Using hand gestures is an extremely powerful communication tool that helps support your message and brings your words to life.


Using your hands is a natural thing. If you think about it, when you are telling an interesting story or engaged in animated conversation with a friend, what do your hands naturally do? They show expression! It’s not something you think about, is it? Your hands are just naturally telling a story along with your voice because you are excited, and it feels natural and comfortable.


Then you may ask, if it’s such a natural thing, then why do so many people have a problem using their hands in public speeches?


The problem with using your hands in public speaking is that we tend to overthink it because we are in an unnatural setting, and we are uncomfortable and anxious. We think we HAVE to do something with our hands because people are watching us. So then it becomes a forced act. But the more you think about what to do with your hands, the more awkward your presentation will be. It’s a losing battle if you think about it too much.



Learning the Wrong Methods 


Too often when we were young, we were told by teachers in public speaking classes not to speak with our hands. This is just plain wrong. Too many teachers have taught that a student’s hands distract the audience, so they advised students against this practice.


The problem that arose from this teaching is that it produced countless “professional” speakers who don’t know what to do with their hands. It has been ingrained in their head that using their hands somehow violates an unwritten communication rule. That’s just not true.


You can use your hands to enhance or augment your presentation without acting like you are swatting at a swarm of bees all over the place. Great speeches require that you use your entire body, and that definitely includes your hands.



FYI, this is not an enhancement.



So then, what are the most appropriate hand gestures to use?


Again, the most natural hand gestures are the ones that work best, but let’s examine this a bit closer. As I mentioned before, the secret is in HOW you use them.


Here are the best positions for your hands while speaking:

  1. To begin, put your hands in a position to be used so that you are ready for anything. You can do this by using what is called “soft hands.” This is putting your hands out in front of you with your fingertips lightly touching each other. Then your hands will be ready. Now, get into your topic. The more you are into it, the more your hands will follow. Because your hands are always in a state of readiness, energy and passion will always follow along with your presentation.
  2. The open palm is an invitation to your audience to participate. You can do this invite your audience into a main point, if you are not using soft hands or illustrating a point. By the way, practice leaning forward a bit when opening your palms and then lean back when going into the soft hands position again.
  3. Use illustration if you are talking about objects or situations. For example, put your hands far apart to help your audience visualize a large object. If you are telling a story about something that came very close to you, take your thumb and index finger and put them about an inch apart. If you are talking about a subject you’ve been thinking a great deal about, take your finger and point at your head. As a side note, never point your finger at people, as it can make them defensive.

These hand gestures are subtle and should come naturally. The more natural they are, the more you won’t be thinking about which hand gestures to use when communicating a thought or idea.


What Not to Do


Here are a few rules you want to remember when your hands are free.

  1. Don’t lock them on to the lectern.
  2. Don’t put them behind your back.
  3. Don’t drop them in front of your crotch.
  4. Don’t clasp them tightly below your waist.
  5. Don’t put them in your pockets.


The worst thing you can do when making the statement “I have two points I need to make,” and then put up two fingers. It’s unnatural and uncomfortable for you as well as your audience. It looks too rehearsed. If you see yourself doing it during a presentation on video, you would see that it’s not a natural look.


And please, please, please, God, I’m begging you, please don’t use the “Clinton thumb”!



Oops, not that thumb.


THIS thumb!



The best scenario you want is to get absorbed so much into your presentation that you don’t even remember what gestures you used until after the fact. That’s when you know you are really communicating to your audience, and that you made an indelible impact in the most natural way possible.


And one more “hands” pic. Oh ya baby.



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As always, keep leaping forward my friends!





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