What Do I do with my Hands while I’m Presenting?

For many thousands of years, human beings have looked at the hands of people approaching them to see if they are holding any kind of weapon or instrument that could possibly cause injury or death. It is instilled in our genes to perform this subconscious act of self protection whenever we meet someone.

This has implications for us in our daily communication with both groups and individuals. It is especially important when doing training, making presentations within our own organizations or to external audiences such as potential clients where we need to project an image of honesty and non aggression or in other communicative activities such as speaking in public generally whether you be a “company spokesperson”, politician, a speaker at a conference, etc. This means that if we wish to be perceived by our audience as an excellent and congruent communicator, we need to be able to consciously control our non verbal communication to ensure that our subconscious does not transmit unintended or incongruent messages.

Possibly the most important points to remember in any presentation, training or public speaking context are:
Always : 
Keep your hands in full view of the audience:
Since we always look at the hands of people approaching us it is imperative that in any communicative situation, our hands are in full view as a clear sign that we are not planning to do harm to the other people present. Hiding your hands implies that you are hiding something or not being totally honest. This recommendation applies equally whether you are sitting behind a desk or table or standing up.

Keep your hands above the waist:
Since we look at other peoples’ hands, when communicating, our hands should always be above our waist in a relaxed way.

The Ideal Posture

The Ideal Posture

This photo shows you the ideal position.

This posture shows the audience that you are in control of yourself  and your non verbal communication. It allows you to gesture naturally and easily. We recommend that you use a presentation pointer to show your PowerPoint deck to the audience in a presentation or training course and this posture allows you to use it naturally. You can also use a sign pen if working on a flipchart or whiteboard, etc. Do NOT hold sheets of paper in your hands as this often leads to what is known as a “Pase” in bullfighting: sweeping the sheet of paper from one side to another as if fighting a bull which distracts the audience’s attention. It is fine to hold, & use, small index cards in your hands.

Use your hands to gesture and burn off excess adrenalin.
Many people produce excessive amounts of adrenalin when required to speak in public due to the psychological and physiological responses which this activity can produce: fear, stress, nervousness, sweating, etc., which can have a range of unexpected and undesirable consequences for the speaker. The best way for us to burn-off the excess adrenalin caused by the stress of presenting or training is to use our hands to help “illustrate” our communication by the use of drawing pictures with our hands; expressing emotions or relationships between elements. There is a school of thought that posits that gestures should NOT be used in presentations, training, public speaking, etc., as it “distracts” the audience from the main message. We propose that if the gestures are rehearsed, forced or incongruent, then, and only then, will the audience be distracted.

Gesture naturally.
One of the most basic forms of communication is that of gestures. It is one of the first forms of communication that we use as babies and, as adults, when we are in a situation where we do not speak the local language we often resort to gestures to communicate – usually with a certain degree of success! Gestures add a visual reinforcement to spoken language which is invaluable in effectively communicating our message.

Note: Many politicians tend to “learn” certain gestures that they believe add credibility to their spoken language, however they tend to overuse these gestures and they often become objects of ridicule by comics on television and in the mass media. An excessive or exaggerated use of gestures is obviously to be avoided. Just be natural!

Another point to remember is that the physical placement of the hands can carry an often unexpected and unintended meaning. Whenever we look at something there is always what is known as “The Center of Gaze” that is the specific object that we are looking at and is often the trainer, presenter or speaker, etc. There is also what is known as “Peripheral Vision” or “Outside the Center of Gaze” which can be up to 130-135° vertically and 200-220° horizontally of all that we see and that enters into, and influences, our subconscious memory.

The following are examples problems with the placement of hands so it is recommended that you avoid the following posture / gestures:
– Hands in front of the groin area: (below the waist & “Center of gaze” ).
– Hands behind the back: (Hidden hands)
– Hands in pockets: – Often a part of the cluster of non-verbal indicators used to identify if a person is telling lies. (Hidden hands)
– Hands hanging loosely by side: (below the waist & “Center of gaze”).

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, our hands play an important yet often undervalued part of our communication with individuals and groups and it is time for us to pay much more attention to this often neglected area.

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates S.L., Madrid, Spain.

May. 2013


About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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