As a communications consultant and executive coach, I am often called upon to work with teams and individuals on executive presentation skills. And I am constantly amazed that one of the first questions I am asked—and therefore clearly one of the biggest concerns that people have before a presentation—is "What should I do with my hands?" Fortunately, as this seems to be one of the great challenges of leadership communication, there are three simple rules that address this monumental issue.
Rule #1: Keep them attached to our arms.
We've all learned over time that our hands are really quite useful for a wide variety of tasks in our everyday life. So let’s hang on to them, leave them right where they are at the end of our arms, and continue to put them to put them to good use for years to come!
Rule # 2: Forget about them!
When do we ever think about what to do with our hands? I would argue that the only time we ever think about our hands is when we contemplate with increasing anxiety an upcoming speech, major presentation, or "serious" conversation. When heading to a friend's house for dinner, do you ever stop suddenly on their doorstep, turn to your significant other, and exclaim, "Wait...don't ring the doorbell! I have to figure out what I'm going to do with my hands when they answer the door!"? Or, "OMG, they are boarding the plane -- my hands, my hands....what to do with my hands!"
If you have honored Rule # 1 above, your hands will still be there, and they will miraculously take care of themselves.
Rule # 3: Use them with impact!
In all seriousness, our hands are an important communication tool—a part of our body language—and we need to use them with effect. Gestures that are on-point reinforce the passion and purpose of our words. Hand movements can help set the scene, painting a picture for our audience that helps bring our words to life. Short, descriptive gestures can add some "punch" to our delivery and project confidence that we are in control and personally committed to our message.
What do on-point gestures look like? Basically, your hands are echoing your words. If you’re giving a talk about eliminating data entry, you might briefly “type” with your hands to underscore the point. If you’re talking about a brainstorming meeting, you might tap your temple a few times to reinforce your remarks. You don’t need to do this constantly, but on-point gestures can definitely help your audience grasp your point faster.
As the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood has said, "Speech is after all only a system of gestures...so that it can be perceived through the ear as well as through the eye...the written or printed book is only a series of hints...from which the reader works out for himself the speech-gestures which alone have the gift of expression."
When we work with small groups in leadership development program, we ask participants to give feedback after their peers’ presentations. When this happens, people almost never comment on "the hands". And in my coaching work, except for when we do a bit of "gesture choreography" it rarely surfaces as a topic of concern. So while gestures are one element of executive presentation skills, this just isn't the big issue we try to make it out to be.
As with so many other endeavors, practice is the best antidote for "hand anxiety." If you are comfortable with your material, have internalized your messages and talking points, and have practiced out loud so you are comfortable with the content and flow, you can find ways to make your hands an extension of your speaker persona. When you are able to do that, you will be a great speaker......hands down.
Craig Bentley is an Executive Coach and Vice President. Craig works with executive clients at global companies such as Dow Chemical, Advent International, Kimberly-Clark, and VF Corporation to help them communicate more effectively and drive execution of business strategies.