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.

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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.

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