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How Not To Use Your Hands When Presenting

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We think of speaking as an activity where we use our voice. That is true but we use a lot more than that.  We use our face, eyes, legs, body and our hands.  When we are speaking while seated it is different to when we are standing.  We need to master all situations for when we are called upon to speak in front of others.  One of our problem areas is what to do with our hands when we speak.  Judging by most of the presentation I see in Japan, few speakers have worked this out yet.
 
Here are some common habits we can improve upon to make ourselves much more persuasive and professional.
 
1.  Hands in front of the body.  This for men will usually means wrapping the right fist by the left hand and holding both in front of the groin.  For women, Japan has a specific requirements such as cupping the fingers of each hand so they interlock like the yin yang symbol and holding them at waist height or sliding the fingers together at the thumb and first finger intersection,  so the arms are outstretched and all the fingers are pointing to the ground.  This is usually a set and is combined with the foot positioning, so that one foot is forward of the other and the front toe of the rear shoe touches the back heel of the front shoe.
 
These elaborate rituals are a product of trying to standardise the form and to kill uncontrolled hand movements.  It also kills the ability to use gestures to support and strengthen our words.  The arms and hands when held in front of the body also creates a subliminal barrier between the audience and the speaker.  It is saying "I don’t trust you, I am scared of you and I need to protect my most vial organs from you, in case of sudden attack".  As a speaker, we want to be as inclusive as possible, so we need to eliminate all physical barriers (podiums, reams of notes, ipads, arms) between ourselves and our audience.  We also want to show we are totally confident and have a welcoming attitude to our audience.
 
2.  Arms behind the back, clasped together.  This is another anchor technique used when the speaker has no idea what to do with their hands.  The hands are also invisible to the audience, so the speaker feels they can forget about what to do with them or how they are placed or situated.  That is true, but there are a few issues with this pose.  Since cave dweller days, we have learnt not to trust people whose hands are not visible to us.  They may have been concealing a weapon.  The thigh bone of a major animal, a sturdy, gnarled tree branch or a sharp, flinty rock with which to bash us on the head and steal out fire, food or loved ones. In more advanced and sophisticated times, the fear is they will suddenly whip out a deadly blade and plunge it deep into our soft intestines and kill us.
 
The palms open and facing forward gesture is a universal and timeless indicator of "I am not a threat to you, because, as you see I have no hidden weapon".   This when associated with certain words and phrases says "you can trust what I am saying".  Not a bad thing for a speaker to achieve with an audience, especially to a gathering of card carrying skeptics.
 
3.  Arms folded across the chest or one hand touching one elbow while the other hand is held near the face.  Like number one above, these are defensive postures specifically designed to keep your audience away from your vital spots.  By the way, I do recommend the latter posture, if you are ever standing close and talking with someone you are suspicious of.  My karate background recommends that position, because from there it is very quick to parry a sudden "king hit" style blow to either your face or your body, but I digress.  
 
In speaking term though, these postures send all the wrong messages.  We want to be trusted as a speaker and to do so, we have to show we are open to our audience.  Holding our hands by our sides is a natural position and from here it is easy to raise our hands when needed, to inject a powerful gesture with which to back up our words.
 
4.  Hands in the pockets.  This is a particular favourite of male executives who have no idea of what to do with their hands when speaking.  The really confused thrust both hands into their respective trouser pockets achieving a sort of  stereo effect.  It presents the hands where they can be seen from the front, but it denies us the opportunity to use gestures during out talk.
 
5.  Holding something in our hands.  When we are teaching public speaking, our participants often want to hold their speaking notes in their hands when they do the pair practice role plays.  I notice they actually never look at them, but they feel comforted that should they get into trouble, help is close by if there is a possible brain white out.  
 
Sheets of paper however tend to become a distraction as we tend to wave them around.  The pages quiver and shake if we are nervous and this is visible to our audience. We are sending the wrong message to them.  We want to convey belief and confidence in our message.
 
If we are looking down, be it at the notes page or an iPad, we break off eye contact with our audience.  Instead, we need to be watching our audience like a hawk, constantly gauging their reaction to what we are saying.  We also want to employ our eye power to engage with them directly and sell them on our key messages.  We want to remove all distractions from what we are communicating and we want to free up our hands so we can employ our gestures to bolster our argument.
 
6.  Gripping the podium, the microphone stand or holding the hand microphone with both hands.  The double hand, vice like grip of the podium gives the speaker the feeling of stability.  It also removes the "what do I do with my hands" conundrum.  What it says about you though is, "I am nervous and lacking in confidence". It can make us appear quite strained as we apply muscle power to the upper arms and raises our shoulders, as we ensure the podium does not make a sudden attempt to scarper.  Best to not even touch the podium at all and just feel free to raise your hands for gestures.  Holding the microphone or it’s stand with both hands, precludes us from gesturing during our talk.  Don’t touch the microphone stand at all.  Restrict the hand microphone usage to one hand only, so the other is free and readily available for emphasis..
 
Having said that, if you find your arms and hands are shaking almost uncontrollably, because the adrenaline is coursing though your body, then by all means hold the microphone with both hands and gather it to your chest, so no one can see how petrified you are.  The shaking won’t be visible anymore and you can feel more confident when you are talking.
 
7.  Hands under the table.  If we are seated during our presentation, we don’t want to hide our hands under the table.  This is the same trust issue as the hands behind the back in number two.  Place the hands on top of the table, resting comfortably together where they can be seen.  From there, pick them up and use them for gestures.
 
8. Over employing or holding on to the same gesture, all of the time.  We need to use a variety of gestures otherwise, we become too predictable and boring for our audience.  We also need to turn gestures on and off, like the faucet of a tap.  Don’t let the water run too long, remember to switch it off for a while.  The break between usage and non-usage, gives the gesture more force with our audience.  If we hold the same hand position for longer than 15 seconds, all the power of that gesture dies and it just becomes an annoyance to our audience.
 
9.  Pointing our finger at people, making a fist like we want to fight, making slapping sounds and waving our hands around like a drowning person when speaking.  Thrusting our single finger at someone is an aggressive action, as is brandishing our fist.  We associate these gestures with an invitation to argument or combat. Neither should be our intention when engaging with our audience.  Slapping or hands together or slapping our legs is an unnecessary distraction and we should avoid doing so. Waving our hands around becomes another distraction from the message we want to convey and can look like we are out of control.
 
 
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