What should I do with my hands when I speak?

April 2, 2015

What should I do with my hands when I speak?

It’s a question I’m often asked as an executive communication coach. And whether you’re at a networking event, speaking at a meeting, or presenting at a conference, you’re often perceived differently based on how you move your hands and where you place them.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

Know your audience

Seek first to understand your audience and their expectations. Are you speaking to corporate executives or to startup entrepreneurs? Are you speaking at a sales presentation or at a funeral?

One group might frown upon theatrical body language while another might embrace it. Context is critical!

Be aligned

When you speak, you typically see the best results when your hand gestures are consistent with what you say, how you feel, and how you sound.

For example, you might be genuinely excited to tell everyone about your latest product. But let’s imagine that during your entire presentation, your hands stay tightly glued together below your waist, and your voice remains flatter than your desk. Would you be surprised if your audience isn’t completely convinced?

Your audience can’t read your mind. So make sure that your body language and your voice matches your words!

In addition, do your hands add to your message or distract from it? Are your movements excessive If you want to avoid losing your audience’s attention, be sure to move your hands with purpose!

Here are some body language gestures that typically make you appear defensive, aloof, or aggressive.

7 closed gestures

  1. Hands in your pockets (this looks extremely casual)
  2. Hands locked tightly together (in prayer position, at naval level, or below the waist)
  3. Arms crossed
  4. Hands on your hips
  5. Hands behind your back
  6. Fists or finger pointing
  7. Pushing palms away from you

On the other hand, here are some gestures that typically help you appear welcoming, sincere, and enthusiastic.

7 open gestures

  1. One hand in your pocket (this looks casual)
  2. Hands at naval level or below the waist (loosely clasped, lightly touching, or held apart)
  3. Hands loosely held by your side
  4. Open palms, facing up
  5. Independently gesturing with your right hand and then your left hand
  6. Gesturing with both hands for emphasis
  7. Sweeping your palms towards you

When you speak, be aware that your audience is most comfortable when your hand gestures and positions match your words and your voice, as well as your audience’s expectations.

So the next time you need to speak at a networking event, an important meeting, or at a conference, I hope you have a better idea of what to do with your hands!

Image credit: by Steve Jurvetson, via flickr.com.


Ron Tsang

Ron Tsang helps entrepreneurs give compelling presentations to clients, employees, and investors. He has empowered his clients to understand and master critical areas of public speaking since 2004. Ron has an MBA from the University of Toronto and an HBA from the University of Waterloo. Find him on Level Up Workshops and folllow @rhtsang.