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Public Speaking: 6 Things NOT To Do With Your Hands

by Ken Bradford

You didn't miss it in school.
It's not your fault!

You were never taught what to do with our hands, because there are no hard and fast rules. If so, we might have all been taught to look like cardboard movie posters found in the cinema lobby.

There are suggestions.

First: Be open. A clenched fist rarely spells “trust.”

Second: If you are nervous and not sure what to do with your hands consider implementing some of the following techniques. They can keep your hands employed, instead them becoming distracting tentacles.

Purposeful things to do with your hands

1. Empty your pockets. The sound of keys jingling or last night’s slot machine winnings shouldn’t compete with your vocal message.

2. Keep your palms empty. Avoid holding pens, keys or markers unless they are used as props. Shun the urge to use what’s in your hands to show off your juggling ability.

3. Holding notes. Use your free hand to do most of the gesturing. For some reason, frequent waving of even a single piece of paper over peoples’ heads makes them nervous. It’s like shaking the want ads at the dog.

4. Make an inclusive gesture. Open palms (knuckles almost downward) aimed at the full width of the audience, invites one-and-all into your message.

5. Raise your hand. As an audience member, ask a question or make a comment before it’s your turn to present. The movement helps keep your muscles loose and reduce rigor mortis. As the presenter, when you ask a question of the audience, let your hand be the first to rise, signally how you want response.

6. Do nothing. Don’t use your hands. Remember what William L. Shirer wrote about Mahatma: “Gandhi was not an orator. He scarcely raised his voice and made no hand gestures.” If the person who inspired a nation with his words had no need of histrionics, neither might you.

Remember, you already know how to use your hands.

You do it constantly one-on-one, without giving thought. So for those new to presenting, it can be a confusing paradox, of trying to be natural while incorporating mechanical skills. Keep integrating a few new techniques as you go. Find speaking opportunities to practice. Before long, you’ll have your own rules.


Ken Bradford, author of Fearless & Persuasive Speaking, A Communication Guide For Leaders, facilitates a nationwide leadership program for non-profit trade associations. Members nominate participants to attend the annual speaking training. www.
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