Do Your Hands Hurt or Help You in Public Speaking? The Case For and Against Hand Gestures in Public Speaking Part One

Do Your Hands Hurt or Help You in Public Speaking? The Case For and Against Hand Gestures in Public Speaking Part One

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker
One of the most common questions I get asked when doing executive speech coaching or running courses on public speaking is "Tom, what do I do with my hands?"
Well, this is a much debated question.
Some coaches argue gestures should be restrained while others advise gestures should be used for greater emphasis or impact.
There is no right or wrong answer, so I'm going to argue the case for both!
The Case Against Hand Gestures in Public Speaking is the first part of this two-part article.
Here are five reasons why stillness in public speaking is a virtue.

1. Trust is Eroded
Recent research shows a third of an audience are less likely to trust a speaker who they believes uses too many hand gestures.
Too many hand movements and you have already lost the trust of 30 per cent of your audience.
The Jab and pointing for example are rarely received well by an audience.
Whether it's pointing directly at people, or jabbing into your hand, it comes across as an aggressive or accusatory gesture.
Speakers when they are nervous are also less trusted by an audience.
Hands grasped in front of you for example communicates that you are nervous or tentative, as does touching your face, hair, or neck.
Gripping speech notes or the podium for dear life with white knuckles is not the look of a confident speaker either.
Other tell tale signs include excessive "hand washing" or "pen clicking".
"The Wringer" is another variant where the terrified speaker holds their hands together massaging the palms with each other as though they are trying to keep warm on a cold frosty winter's morning.

2. Hands Are a Distraction
You see many people making simple mistakes.
They are holding their hands in a certain way that actually distracts from what they're saying.
Sometimes a speakers hand will be in this continual motion and actually attract an audience's attention and all of a sudden the audience has forgotten what they've said.
They just focus on watching their hands and not what is being said.
Clapping and slapping for example can also become a distraction if you don't pull it off well.
This could be hand clapping, or - often - unintended hitting of your hand against your side or knees or even worse the microphone!

3. Confusion
Hands can confuse audiences when the gestures don't match the words.
For example using the word "big" while your thumb and finger indicate something tiny.
Using the double-handed first two fingers together and slightly bent with hands moving up and down gesture to illustrate you are going to give a quote is a big no no.
Some people might think you are talking about bunny rabbits.

4. Awkward
Hand gestures can make the speaker look awkward and the audience then just feels sorry for them.
Beware of awkward gestures such as the "fig-leaf stance" where hands are clasped in front of your groin a la Adam and Eve.
A variance is the "Royal stance" where hands are clasped behind the back. This is often known as the "I have no arms" approach to public speaking.
And my favorite "the teapot" where one hand is on the hip like the handle of a tea pot and the other hand is pointing in the opposite direction like a spout.
Here is a list of uncomfortable gestures I commonly see in nervous and awkward speakers:

Scratching various parts of your body
Playing with your ring finger
Touching your face, especially nose
Swaying from side to side
Shifting your weight
Pacing back and forth
Touching your ears
Adjusting your hair, including preening and twisting of hair
Adjusting your clothing, including pulling of sleeves
Putting your hands in your pockets
Playing with pens and white board markers
Jingling coins in a pocket

5. No value
Gestures must add value.
Your body language is meant to add value to the words that you're speaking, not take away from it.
My pet hate is the line "hands up if you .... " approach by some speakers who then put their hand up. I always feel like I'm back in kindergarten and being treated as a five year old when a speaker does this.
So it's something that is very important to take control of. It's something that we have to think of because if we don't take control of our hands they will do whatever they want and they will run away from us and it will look awkward and it will not add value to our presentation and that's what gesturing is meant to do.

My tip from speaker trainer Colin James is this, feet shoulder width apart, parallel and put the thumbs down the seams of your trousers.
This is the most authoritative, powerful and least distracting stance to have.
For you as a speaker it might feel a little dorky and stiff, but from the audience's perspective it is the least distracting so they can really focus on your words and message.
In the next edition, the argument for hand gestures. 

My next public speaking course in August 12th 2014. Book here.

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