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You know what you’re going to say.  Slides are done; notes typed; and you’ve practised til you know your speech almost by heart. But the question still nagging at the back of your mind is:

What do I do with my hands?

Surprisingly, this remains one of the most common public speaking questions out there.

Though we are all born with a natural predisposition to use gestures as part of our everyday communication (even blind people will use hand gestures when speaking with each other), for some reason as soon as we get in front of an audience, we become hyper-conscious of our hands.

Perhaps it’s because of that famous (or infamous) statistic about how we understand communication – you know that it’s 7% words, 38% tone and 55% body language. Never mind that this statistic has actually been completely misunderstood, and is not at all what Professor Mehrabian, who devised the formula, was measuring (watch this video for the best explanation I’ve seen of the misunderstanding of that statistic).

When giving a speech, the single most important determinant of success is, and always will be, what you actually say; your words. It is your words that people will listen to and hopefully remember.

But that’s not to say that things like body language, tone, and hand gestures are irrelevant. Used well, they can certainly enhance the overall impression you make on your audience. So, since we both know you’re already looking at your hands wondering what you do with them next time you do some public speaking, here are 3 key things to remember (and a couple of things not to do):

1) Listen to old Fists of Fury himself, Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was a man, who knew what to do with his hands.

There’s an amusing early scene at the beginning of the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’ in which Bruce Lee is schooling his young apprentice. When the young fighter stares at Bruce Lee’s pointing finger instead of up at the sky, Lee smacks him on the head with the classic instruction:

‘Don’t concentrate on the finger, otherwise you’ll miss all that heavenly glory!’

The same goes with your public speaking.  The first rule about what to do with your hands is… don’t worry about what you’re doing with your hands. In the grand scheme of things, your hands hardly matter.

Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator because of his intuitive ability to communicate and connect with the American public, and yet he used pretty much no hand gestures throughout his entire political career (and probably his acting career too!).

By contrast, Adolf Hitler (psycho nut job though he was) was undoubtedly one of the most powerful orators of the 20th century despite all that wild saluting and spitting.

Focus on the message you want to convey and your hands will take care of themselves.

2) 6,000 ways to gesture. Choose 3

Good things come in 3s, and so it is with hand gestures. There are 3 basic purposes for which you should use your hands:

  1. To convey information e.g. counting on your fingers to list items; holding your hands apart to convey distance or size; extending your thumb and little finger to signal a phone etc
  2. To convey emotion e.g. clutching your hands to your chest to show your passion; clenching and waiving your fist to show anger; shaking your hands to highlight
  3. To convey ideas or meaning e.g. rolling your hands to signify motion; holding up your palms in apology; giving a thumbs up to suggest positivity.

Understanding and focusing on those 3 basic purposes will stop you using your hands randomly, and give your body language a much greater sense of control.

Armed with this information, you should analyse the content of any speech you are giving for information, emotion and meaning, and choose appropriate gestures to suit at certain points.

The trick is to let your hands do what they naturally want to, but then use some key gestures at certain moments. (Wikipedia has a pretty useful List of Gestures that might give you some ideas).

And I personally don’t agree with the prevailing views of some of my fellow public speaking professionals, who say things like you can’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t cross your arms, or only point with your thumb but never your finger.

Certainly, there are a few things I’d advise you to avoid (see below), but even then, I’ve seen people do those things and still give great speeches.

Most of all just try to be easy and natural. Think about what you do with your hands when you are having a great conversation with a good friend. Then do that.


Remember, no one will actually notice your hands unless you do something big with them; but ‘big’ in this context means deliberate, rather than wild. So, use your gestures deliberately and you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hands (see what I did there!?)

3) Practise. Practise. Practise.

You should know by now that any how to guide I put out there will always involve practice. Steve Jobs practised. Martin Luther King practised. Winston Churchill practised. And as Mark Twain  once wryly observed:

It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech

So, as you practise the delivery of your words, be sure to incorporate your hand movements into that rehearsal so that when game time comes, those movements will feel fluid and natural.

What about mistakes?

I really do believe that there are no hard and fast rules on this stuff. Yet, for all but the most charismatic and experienced speakers, there are definitely a few things you would probably be better off avoiding. Here are the big ones:

  1. Don’t copy politicians – speechmaking in politics is contrived and stilted. If you copy them, it will ring false. Feel free to study them, and take a few pointers. But stay true to yourself. Be original.
  2. Don’t fidget – that’s the quickest way to distract your audience.
  3. Stay away from your groin area – common sense really but you really don’t want to be directing your audience anywhere near there.
  4. Don’t be wild – unless you’re going for the fascist dictator look (which admittedly does drift in and out of fashion), keep your movements smooth and contained.
  5. Don’t over do it – like anything else, too much of a good thing is bad. Don’t have a gesture planned for every sentence or you’ll undermine your results. Less, as always, is more
  6. No jazz hands!
  7. Don’t concentrate on the finger, otherwise you’ll miss all that heavenly glory!

Good luck.

Kolarele Sonaike

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