What to do with my hands?

What do I do with my hands?

It seems we travel through life with no question of the importance or purpose of our hands until we are speaking in public. Then, these alien extensions seem to do nothing but work against us.

The power of gesture is extraordinary. We decipher meaning from gestures every waking moment of our personal and professional lives. Gestures can almost entirely influence the way we interpret what someone is trying to say – sometimes we don’t even require words…

Our non-verbal behaviour is directly linked to the limbic system within our brain – our emotional epicentre. As Joe Navarro states in his book What Every Body is Saying (2008): “our limbic system reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought. For that reason, it gives off a true response to information coming in from the environment.” Despite what our logical mind is verbalising, our physical body and gestures are communicating how we really feel.

Keep with me on the science stuff a little longer; the reason we don’t know what to do with our hands when we’re presenting is because, under pressure, our brain’s limbic system is sending screaming signals to our hands to “calm us down!” We do this by pacifying ourselves; by holding, touching, squeezing parts of our bodies that stimulate nerve endings and essentially make us feel better. It’s our brain’s way of giving us that “you’re ok” hug. These pacifying behaviours take many forms, and can often be an individual gauge of just how uncomfortable someone is. They become subconscious habits. I personally pull at my fingers and wring my hands when feeling slightly nervous, and know that if that wringing hand heads north, to my ear lobe, we’re getting into serious anxious territory.

So how do we combat the paradox of feeling nervous but looking confident instead of looking nervous?

For the pragmatists out there, those who want a method to the madness, here are some “go to” tips when you are losing control of your flailing phalanges.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel, Juli 2010” by Armin Linnartz [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

    1. Find a safe harbour – rest your hands loosely near your navel. Don’t grip on for dear life, but find a sitting place for them to layer on top of one another, or float them there – palms towards your navel. It feels awkward but this can keep your gestures from distracting the viewer from your message. They can move out to make a point, and return to the same place when the point has been made. You don’t have to get all Angela Merkel on us, but you can present a neutral, relaxed look instead. For example:


It’s time to get under the covers, Christie Smith, TEDxBeaconStreet

  1. Moving the right way – we read from left to right, right? So when on-stage think of beginning your first point stage-right and moving towards stage-left as you proceed. It is helpful to move your hands in the same direction so people can digest the points with greater clarity.
  1. Signpost important points with corresponding gestures. Gestures which are motivated by a specific objective; to shock, to inspire, to rally (what we call ‘actions’ in the acting world), can mark major emotional moments in a story or presentation. When you and you’re audience need to give weight to a message, don’t just tell them, show them by choosing a specific action to motivate your movement.

Of course what we teach at NIDA Corporate goes beyond simple tips. I am particularly interested in bringing people’s awareness to the way their gestures impact their message and finding ways for them to feel comfort in behaviour that challenges subconscious habits. If you rehearse it well, you can enhance the message you are delivering, giving you complete control over how you’re being received. It’s the old story of practice makes perfect. And in this case “perfect” is being authentic, engaging, and having the mind, voice, and body working as one. Read more about our courses at corporate.nida.edu.au.

 Lauren Stuart
About this author:
 Lauren Stuart, Course Manager, NIDA Corporate. 
Want to know more? Give her a call today on 1300 650 357 or connect with her on LinkedIn