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What to Do With Your Hands When Speaking Publicly

Even the most seasoned of public speakers has experienced Awkward Hand Syndrome. You confidently stride up to the podium, feeling like a person who has control of his limbs. But as soon as you open your mouth, you become painfully aware of the things at the end of your arms. Panicked thoughts run rampant in your mind: “What the heck do I do with my hands? Do I put them behind my back? Should I try to move them? Oh wow, I look like a freakish robot right now. Have I always clapped my hands together when I’m trying to make a point?” Etcetera, etcetera…

Figuring out what to do with your hands is inarguably one of the worst parts of public speaking. However, there are a few handy (get it?) tricks that will make your gestures seem more normal.

First of all, it’s important to understand what certain gestures convey:

- Crossed arms: protective, closed off, disagreeing
- Hands clasped in front of body: weak, timid, vulnerable
- Hands in pockets: nervous or overly casual
- Hands on hips: condescending, overbearing
- Holding onto the podium: controlling, nervous, obviously self-conscious about gestures

So as you can see, these panic-induced default gestures can definitely send the wrong message. The best hand gestures are the ones that appear natural. They show that you are confident and at ease while speaking. So how do you achieve naturalness when any hand movements make you feel like a bird flapping its wings?

- Practice your speech with a friend. Simply sit down at a table and talk through your speech as though it were a casual conversation. It might take a few run-throughs before it feels less strange, but in time you will find yourself in a more relaxed state. Pay attention to your natural hand gestures, and only make conscious adjustments if one of your habitual movements conveys something negative (see list above).

- Videotape yourself giving your speech standing up. What might feel like excessively theatrical gestures might actually look very normal and polished when you review the tape.

- Practice, practice, practice. This is important for all aspects of public speaking, but particularly for hand gestures. The more you practice using them, the easier it will be to get on that stage and not become paralyzed by the fear of Awkward Hand Syndrome.