All About Those Hands – How To Use Gestures In Your Next Speech

Hands are important during a speech, you just have to know what to do with them.
Hands are important during a speech, you just have to know what to do with them.
Image Credit: Marc Wathieu

When I’m working with speakers who want to become better, one of the questions that always seems to come up has to do with hands. Specifically, what they want to know is what should they be doing with their hands during a speech. I think that we all understand that if we’re not careful, our hands can distract from our speech so what’s the right thing to do with them? The answer, it turns out, is to work them into your speech in order to make it even more powerful.

Why Is This Even A Problem?

I guess everything goes back to a fairly simple question: why are we even taking the time to talk about hands? Shouldn’t we really be talking about the importance of public speaking and things like speech openings and eye contact? The answer is that knowing what to do with your hands is actually very important. What you do with your hands during your next speech can determine just how much of an impact your speech has on your audience.

Is all of this nonverbal communication that we do with our hands really necessary? It turns out that the answer is yes – nonverbal communication is a critical part of how we humans communicate. Unfortunately, when we are standing up in front of an audience we all have a tendency to start to become anxious. This does nothing good for our ability to use our hands correctly.

One of the things that we can easily forget about is that giving a speech is something that we do with our entire body not just our mouth. What this means is that when we are giving a speech a lot of changes will occur in our body. Our heart will speed up and therefore our blood pressure will increase. Our breathing will change and become shallower so that we’ll have to breathe more often. Many of us may find it difficult to keep standing because all of a sudden our legs don’t seem to want to do a good job of supporting us. Writer Matt Abrahams has pointed out something else that happens that he calls “plumbing reversal”. This is where our mouths become dry and our hands become wet. Finally, when we become nervous, we often pull our hands up towards our body in a defensive gesture and this does not help us to connect with our audience.

Where Can I Start With My Hands?

If we are going to fix the problems that we are having with our hands, then we are going to have to start somewhere. What we need to understand is that because of the natural sense of nervousness that we feel when we are giving a speech, we tend to do the wrong things with our hands. This means that we’re going to have to overcome these urges.

If you are not actively using your hands to make a gesture, where should they be? The answer that everyone agrees on is hanging by your sides. Now the bad news for you here is that this is going to feel just a bit strange for you – it’s not really all that natural for us humans to stand there with our hands dangling and not doing anything. However, the good news is that everyone else who is looking at you is going to view you as being comfortable and relaxed. The next time that you see an important person standing off to the side of a stage waiting to be introduced, you’ll discover that this is how they are standing.

One of the biggest problems that I have with my students is that they tend to make their gestures too low. What this forces an audience to do is to take their attention off of the presenter’s face in order to watch the gesture. To prevent this from happening, I ask them to mentally picture themselves standing in a swimming pool with the water up to their nipples. Then I tell them to make their gestures so that their hands and arms stay out of the water. This also forces them to extend their gestures and make them further away from their body. This helps the speaker connect with their audience and use the full range of motion to make their gestures.

What All Of This Means For You

The good news is that we all have arms and hands that we can use to add impact to our next speech and allow our audience to experience the benefits of public speaking. The bad news is that we all have arms and hands and more often than not we don’t have a clue as to what we really should be doing with them while we are giving a speech.

The reason that this is such a big deal for us is that if we do the wrong things with our arms and hands then we’ll just end up distracting our audience from the message of our speech. Nonverbal communication is a critical part of every speech that we give and our hand play a big role in this. We need to understand that our body is reacting to the stress of making a speech and so we need to decide what we want to do with our hands. The correct decision is to leave them dangling by our sides. This can feel strange, but it turns out that it looks natural to our audience.

We all want the next speech that we give to be a powerful speech that will capture the hearts and minds of our audience. Our hands have a key role to play in this speech as we use them to make gestures that will help us to make our point. Make sure that in your next speech that your hands are working for you and not against you.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that it is ever possible to make too many gestures during a speech?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Those darn hands of yours – whatever are we going to do with them? During your speech they can either help you to make your point by boosting the importance of public speaking or they can get in your way and act as a distraction for your audience. As speakers we can often find a lot of information on what we are supposed to do with our hands when we are making gestures; however, up until now what has been missing has been a good discussion about just exactly what we should NOT be doing with our hands during a speech.