Awkward or Awesome? What Your Hand Gestures Say When You’re Giving a Speech.

It’s the day of the annual meeting and your team is present from five locations across the U.S. to hear you speak. You’ve spent months preparing: seeking feedback, fine-tuning your presentation, and preparing delivery.

They applaud when you stand up. They laugh appreciatively when you deliver your opening. You feel you’ve got this in the bag.

Suddenly, you realize you have no idea what to do with your hands. You become increasingly aware of them.

First, you shove them in your pockets, but that doesn’t quite feel right. Then you hold them in front of you in the fig leaf position. Ouch, not so great either.

Maybe your hands would be better out of sight behind your back? Now you look like a drill sergeant. Your well-rehearsed speech is rapidly draining from your brain and out your fingertips.

You’re not alone. Most of the executives I coach spend a lot of time preparing what they’ll say, but fail to fully engage their audience because they haven’t figured out what to do with their hands.

In some cases, they realize it and look awkward at best. In other cases, they’re unaware that their hands tell one story and their mouth another. It’s not until we review the presentation together that they see how they lost their audience.

Here are three strategies for making great use of your hands to land your message:

1.  Give your hands a place

Place your hands by your sides. If you’re like most people, this will feel awkward to you at first. But to your audience you’ll look more at ease, confident, and open to engaging with them.

To distract yourself and become more comfortable, Communication Power President, Richard Klees, suggests that you lightly and subtly touch your index finger to your thumb. This allows you to physically connect with yourself and perhaps soothe you–or at least gives you something to do while keeping your mind off your hands.

Watch how Isaac Lidsky, CEO of ODC Construction, uses his hands in the first few minutes of his TED talk.

2.  Give your hands a purpose

While keeping your hands by your sides is better than many other placements, if you only do this, you risk imitating a tin soldier. Impactful communicators use their hands at well-timed moments to underscore the meanings of the words they’re using.

What’s the most important word in the paragraph? What gesture can you use to further cement its meaning with your audience? Your gestures are more noticeable when you make them large.

I often coach people to “air out their armpits” when they gesture. In other words, make your gestures large and noticeable by allowing your arms to move further away from your torso.

Here’s Darren Tay, the first-place winner of the 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking, airing out his armpits to a great audience reception.

3. Give your hands power

Using an open palm facing outward towards the audience significantly increases the possibility that your audience will follow your lead.

In his TEDx talk, Body Language: The Power Is in the Palm of Your Hands, honorary professor of psychology at the Free International University of Moldova Alan Pease describes how you can immediately increase your power of influence by doing this.

If our eyes are the windows to our soul, our hands are our connection to others. For every hour you spend preparing what you’ll say, spend a minute practicing what you’ll do with your hands.

When your hands fly in formation with your words, your audience will follow and give you a bigger hand when you conclude.

This article appeared in Inc. on January 17, 2017.

Sabina Nawaz

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working with executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government, non-profits, and academia.  Previously Sabina spent 14+ years at Microsoft first in software development and then in HR.  She led the company’s executive development and succession planning efforts for over 11,000 managers and 700 executives. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences. Sabina believes the greatest privilege of working with leaders is bearing witness to their acts of courage.

Look for more stories, insights, and advice on thriving as a leader on Forbes, HBR, and Inc and her TEDx talk. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

25 Questions to Ask a Mentor

Whenever I’m asked “What are some of the best questions to ask a ...

25 Songs For Your Leadership Playlist

What are your all-time favorite leadership songs — the ones that make you ...

Four Types of Questions To Ask Your Mentor

Have conversations with your mentor gotten a bit repetitive lately? Perhaps you approached ...

How to Shut Down a Colleague Who Takes Credit for Your Work

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable ...

11 Leadership Lessons Learned

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about leadership—mostly from much-admired colleagues, and just ...

5 Ways to be a Leader, Not a Manager

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a manager and a leader? ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a question I ask in a survey ...

15 Leadership Quotes to Help You be a Leader, Not a Manager

Sometimes you need a reminder and some inspiration to be a leader, not ...

10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. ...

7 Ways To Build Great Relationships With Your Team

The challenges facing new leaders in a business situation are many and varied. ...

Leaderly Quote: The tasks you let go of…
Leaderly Quote: The tasks you let go of…

“Shoulds” are tasks or obligations we take on, accompanied by an inner monologue that goes,

How to Write a Simple and Beautiful Manifesto
How to Write a Simple and Beautiful Manifesto

Traditionally, a manifesto is a written statement where you publicly declare your… – Intentions (what

Leaderly Quote: Leadership is not about doing more
Leaderly Quote: Leadership is not about doing more

You probably already had a to-do list longer than a CVS receipt before this global

What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?
What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?

Leadership is not about doing more. It’s about switching from doing to leading. From this

100 Leadership Qualities: What’s Your Signature Style of Leading?
100 Leadership Qualities: What’s Your Signature Style of Leading?

There’s an entire industry of books and seminars founded on the assumption that if you

20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020
20 Leadership Quotes by Women to Inspire You in 2020

20 of our favorite leadership quotes by women At Be Leaderly, we’re on a mission

Happy Holidays 2019
Happy Holidays 2019

May your Holidays sparkle with moments of love, laughter, and goodwill, and may the year

5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading
5 Ways to Shift From Doing to Leading

To become a leader, there is a series of key shifts in mindset and behavior

You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths
You Do You: Claim Your Leadership Strengths

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…
Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

At Be Leaderly, our mission is a simple one: To provide proven career strategies that help you lead, climb, and thrive as a rising woman of influence. If you’re ready to lead, we’re here to support and inspire you.

Copyright 2020, Be Leaderly