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What do I do with my hands?

We’ve called upon our resident presentation delivery expert, Sharon Merrill President David Calusdian, to teach us to become better speakers – whether at meetings, in investor conferences, or during more personal settings. This four-part conversation provides a taste of the good, and bad, habits of executive presenters, with a few tips for improvement along the way. Today’s post is Part I in the series.
  • The Podium: Thanks so much for joining us, David. Many readers of The Podium are frequent speakers at conferences or company events, so we’re hoping you can share some of your presentation insights with them. We thought for today’s conversation we would discuss that most perplexing of body parts for public speakers: the hands.

DC: I’m always being asked by presenters in coaching sessions where they should put their hands. The fact is that speakers should not put them in any one place at all. Speakers are much more dynamic when their hands are naturally moving, just like a regular conversation. You don’t want your hands to be too fast and going all over the place, but you also don’t want to look really stiff and have them constantly by your sides. Be natural with your hands. Be genuine.

  • The Podium: That sounds simple enough. How do we do that?

DC: When I’m coaching, I ask the speaker how they use their hands in regular conversation, and then advise them to do the same thing in their presentations. After all, any great presentation should come across as a conversation. If you were speaking normally to someone, you would use your hands to emphasize a point. You would make gestures around key words. Likewise, during a presentation, we want to use our hands in a very natural way and to emphasize key points.

  • The Podium: Are there any signals we should avoid with our hands, other than the obvious?

DC: There are some very negative things you can do with your hands. Covering your mouth while you are speaking, for example, can mean that you subconsciously do not want to say the words that are coming out of your mouth. This can be a sign of deception.

  • The Podium: That’s a great tip. What are some other signals?

DC: There are several. For example, if you put your hands behind your back while speaking, you are figuratively hiding something behind your back – another deception signal. That’s not the body language you want to use if you’re trying to build trust and communicate sincerity. Also, as you may have been taught as a child, never point – whether at the audience or anything else. This can be very off-putting. If you need to gesture with your hands, use your whole hand with all of your fingers together, or use the knuckle of your index finger with the rest of your hand in a closed-fist position.

  • The Podium: How about folding your arms across your chest? I always read that is a negative signal. Why is that?

DC: When you fold your arms in front of you, it’s basically creating a barrier between you and your audience. It’s a very defensive posture. To build credibility, you need to present a very open posture with your body.

  • The Podium: OK, so “arms folded” is closed because it’s a barrier. What else might create that barrier?

DC: Depending on how you use it, a podium can definitely be a barrier. I often see people gripping the podium, holding on for dear life when they’re talking – as if they’re on a roller coaster and can’t wait for the ride to end. This is not a good look. One, it’s a bad thing to do with your hands, because now you come across as very stiff. Two, you just look nervous. Nothing is more distracting to an audience than a nervous speaker. And three, you’re accentuating that barrier between you and the audience. Get out from behind that podium.

  • The Podium: Do you recommend people not stand behind a podium?

DC: Yes, if at all possible. When someone comes out from behind the podium, they appear to be more engaged with the audience. Automatically, the speaker gets a more positive reaction – because they’ve eliminated a key barrier between them and the audience. And when you’re out in front of the podium, it also probably means that you’re well-rehearsed and able to have more of a conversation with the audience.

  • The Podium: One reason people don’t use their hands correctly is that they worry about using their hands too much. Is that possible, or is that an unfounded fear?

DC: That’s a question I get very frequently, but it’s almost never the case that they are using their hands “too much.” On the rare occasion when I am working with someone who has very big hand gestures that make them look a little out of control, I’ll give them a virtual “strike zone” to keep their hand gestures within.

  • The Podium: What should people do about hand motion and body language in video calls?

DC: Body language is equally important in video calls, but obviously much harder. If possible, frame your body on camera so that it’s possible for viewers to see some subtle hand gestures. This can help make your presentation more dynamic – and prevent you from coming across as just a boring talking head. Just be careful that your hands do not get too close to your camera to prevent your audience from seeing a giant hand coming at them!

  • The Podium: This has been a great opening to our series. Thanks so much for joining us today, David. We’re looking forward to our next conversation, when we’ll be discussing the use of eye contact.
Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of C-Level officers to deliver persuasive and engaging presentations. From message development, to delivery and Q&A, we know how to help you capture the attention of your key stakeholders. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you find success at your next presentation.
David Calusdian

David is an accomplished communicator with more than 30 years of experience in advising and coaching CEOs, CFOs, IROs, and boards of directors through a range of critical communications events, including IPOs, quarterly earnings results, executive transitions, and M&A. David is an acknowledged authority on executive presentation coaching, investor relations strategy, investor day execution, and strategic messaging.