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Presentation Training: What Do I Do With My Hands?

We’ve called upon our resident body language expert, Sharon Merrill EVP and Partner David Calusdian, to teach us to become better speakers – whether at meetings, investor conferences or in 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: The hands, and the arms, for that matter, can stump a lot of speakers. Many speakers have no idea what to do with them, and frequently ask me where they should put their hands during a speech or presentation. The answer is that the hands shouldn’t be in one place at all. Speakers are more dynamic when they are free-flowing with their hands. You don’t want them to be too fast and going all over the place, but you also don’t want to look reallystiff and have them constantly by your side.

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

DC: To start, I try to get people to use their hands as they would in a normal conversation. Try to think about your speaking situation as you would if you were just having a friendly conversation -- versus being in “presenting mode.” 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. Body language experts say that 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. 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 your mother probably taught you 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 is basically creating a barrier between you and your audience. It’s a very defensive posture.

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 are on a roller coaster and can’t wait for the ride to end. One, it’s a bad thing to do with your hands, because now you’re 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.

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

DC: Yes, if the situation allows it. 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 any barrier between them and the audience. And when you’re out from behind the podium, it means that you’re probably 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: Usually not, but it’s probably the No. 1 fear. Occasionally I’ll work with someone who has very big hand gestures that make them look a little out of control. At that point, I’ll give them a “strike zone” to keep their hand gestures within.

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 eyes.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues.

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