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.
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.