A Good Tip, Hands Down

Have you ever been empty-handed in a conversation at a cocktail party? No drink or plate of canapés to hold? Did you suddenly become acutely aware of your hands? So much so, that you were not sure what to do with them? Me too. Thank heavens for wine. And canapés.

When we are on stage, however, we do not have that luxury. We are up there on our own.  Actually, we are up there with our hands and often at a loss as to where to put them. So we fidget and thus provide a perfect distraction that draws our audience’s attention away from our message.

One of the greatest TV personalities of all time was the legendary Johnny Carson.  He hosted “The Tonight Show” for 30 years before handing over the reins to Jay Leno.  Carson was engaging, witty and extremely quick on his feet.  A consummate professional.  But he probably broke every rule in the book when it comes using one’s hands in a speech.  Have a look at this monologue from 1988:

Heeeeeere’s Johnny! With hands in his pockets; behind his back; clasped together; fiddling with his tie; scratching his nose and chin. And yet . . . it works!  But that is because he was Johnny Carson. He had built up a reputation over many years of hard work and had millions of adoring fans.

Johnny Carson and his hands
Johnny Carson

I have many years of hard work under my belt, but the reputation and millions of fans have not shown up yet. Maybe next week. I suspect that it is the same with you.

So we need to use our hands differently when we do not need them to emphasize a point. How? Simple. Just let them hang naturally by your sides.

Leaving your arms at your sides is the most natural position for them when you are standing. The reason it feels awkward on stage is because we are focusing on ourselves instead of on our speech and the audience. As you gain confidence in your speaking skills, your focus will shift outwards. You will “forget yourself” and be more natural on stage.

You can work on focusing your attention outward by being more energetic in your speeches and presentations. Look at the audience. Focus on your message. Speak louder. You are the speaker, not a spectator.

By learning when not to use our hands, our gestures will be much more effective when we do use them. Think of adding hand gestures to a speech the way a world class chef would add a fine spice to a meal: judiciously and to enhance the flavour of the meal; not to overpower it.

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  1. I talk with my hands; they will never lie limp at my sides. It’s just not me. I don’t want my clients to worry about what their hands are doing, as long as it’s natural. When they start planning out their movements in advance and acting out “scenes,” that’s when I worry!
    If you’re having a conversation with your audience and interacting with them naturally, your hands will do what they’re meant to do! But do be careful about distractions; that’s when your movements are unnatural — and your audience can tell.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. You have hit the nail on the head when you say that movements must be natural. We need our hands to be expressive and engaging, and to drive home our points. It is when we see speakers who do not know what to do with their hands that it becomes, as you say, distracting. That is why I believe that if people can learn to be comfortable with leaving their hands at their sides – from time to time – the gestures that they do make will be more effective and will not be buried among all the distracting, non-natural gestures.

  2. Check out Don Varney’s video on “Avoiding Forced Gestures in Public Speaking” at ExpertVillage.com.
    He says “One of the best speakers I saw, and impacted me in such a way, basically, stood with his hand in his left pocket most of the evening and only spoke with one hand using it as an impactful gesture hand. And when he’d maxed and used that hand, you always listen to that point. Other than that, it dropped down to his side and, although he may be moving about the stage, he may be talking. Unless there was a reason, something that needed to be impacted, that hand never moved from his side and this hand never left his pocket.”

  3. What to do with your hands is something many don’t think about outright – including me! Thank you for sharing this. I have a tendency to clasp my hands in front of me. Keeping hands to your side is one option, but I see another could be to clasp them behind your back unless you need to use them – it helps maintain good posture! I never thought about keeping one hand in a pocket. If I have pockets, I will try that the next time I speak.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Monica. Intuitively, I would not advocate either keeping your hand in your pocket or putting your hands behind your back. The former is too casual for many speaking situations; the latter (to me) looks a bit odd and as if the speaker is trying to hide something. (When I am thinking about a tricky issue at work, I sometimes walk on the balcony with my hands behind my back to think it out but I never take that position when speaking.)
      Having said that, here are some suggestions: (1) Practice speaking in front of a full length mirror and try out different hand positions/movements. What feels right? Do you look comfortable? (2) Study videos of different speeches. What did the speakers do with their hands that you liked or didn’t like? (3) The next time you speak in public, have somebody in the audience pay particular attention to the way in which you used your hands and give you feedback.
      Ultimately, the trick is to find what works for you and to have your hand movements (or lack thereof) enhance your message, not detract from it.
      Good luck!

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