Performance Challenges: What To Do with Your Hands?

On any day—in any given event—you have to believe in yourself and back yourself 100%.” –Rasheed Ogunlaru

Ianspeaking  Even the most confident people sometimes fall apart when it comes to performing—whether that’s giving a public talk, delivering to a camera, or even giving a report to a group of peers.

I’ve seen award-winning professors lose the tango with their nerves. In conversation, they used their hands just like you would expect them to. But turn on the camera, and suddenly I’d see them rubbing their ears, swinging their arms, or shoving their hands deeply in their pockets and rocking back and forth on their heels.

People get self-conscious about their hands, but hands are an enormous asset in reinforcing symbolic, emotional, or descriptive points.

Fortunately, all it takes is some direction for what to do with hands, writing cues into scripts, and practicing to restore confidence and improve presentation. Here are some tips.

  • Unless you’re demonstrating a specific point (how to stretch your triceps, for instance), don’t touch your body.
    • Don’t stroke your chin or rub your nose, tug on your ear, twirl your hair, scratch anywhere… I could go on and on. I’ve seen a lot of bad habits, but most start with touching your body when there’s no reason to.
  • Unless you’re deliberately trying to be authoritative, avoid putting your hands on your hips.
  • Avoid folding or crossing your arms, which looks defensive.
    • If you are on video, you already have a layer between you and your audience, and this makes you seem even more distant.
  • Think about how you would gesture in conversation, and do that.
    • Don’t exaggerate your gestures for delivery unless you are in a large hall where small gestures will be lost.
    • If you are on camera, remember that the visual space where you will be viewed is smaller than in real life. Don’t use large, sweeping gestures unless you know the camera is on a mid- or long-shot that can capture your movements. You should note these in your script ahead of time.
  • Use your hands to mark out space and time, the same way you do in real life—before/in the future, after/later, through, above, behind, etc.
  • Use your hands to show relative position—high, middle, low.
  • Don’t put your hands in front of your face. It blocks you from the viewer, cutting you off psychologically and emotionally.
    • If you are describing something spatially, practice doing so without bringing your hands in front of your face.
    • Hold your hands to the side, or below your chin.

To sum up, you can make any logical gesture, so long as you don’t block your face or rub your body.

But your hands must be at rest some of the time. It’s exhausting and distracting to see constant gesturing. What do you do with your hands when you’re not making logical gestures?

  • A lot of presenters clasp their hands behind their backs, in the old school, poem-recital style.
    • If you’re not reciting a poem and it’s not 1960, this looks formal, old-fashioned, and stiff.
    • Your hands will have a longer distance to travel when you do want to use them, and that can throw off your timing or look odd.
    • I don’t recommend clasping your hands behind your back unless it’s to make a specific point by doing so.
  • Some presenters clasp their hands in front of them, and this can work if you don’t squeeze them tightly (I’ve seen knuckles turn white from lack of circulation).
    • Don’t let them rest on your private parts—the fig leaf approach. Embarrassing!
  • Hands in both pockets can work briefly and occasionally, so long as you don’t start rocking on your heels or slouching. This approach can be fitting for a deliberately casual moment (with the emphasis on moment. Don’t keep them there!).
    • One hand in the pocket is more effective, because the other is free to gesture or simply dangle at your side—you look relaxed but not like you’re at a barn dance.
    • You can also maintain good posture with only one hand in your pocket. Good posture makes you look engaged and professional.
    • Don’t keep your hand in your pocket; this position can add variety but after a while looks constrained.
  • Stand up and see where you tend to put your hands naturally.
    • Find a comfortable resting position for them so they aren’t distracting but can easily move into a meaningful gesture.
    • You can let your hands rest at your sides, but some people feel awkward in that position.
  • You can also rest your hands around waist level, lightly crossed or barely touching at the fingertips.
    • In this position, it’s natural to raise them to make an expressive gesture, and to let them relax back into position.
    • This is the position I typically use, and what my son is using in the photo above.
  • When you work up your script for final delivery, be on the lookout for opportunities for gestures that will reinforce your message.
  • You can combine your gestures with your physical movements for double impact (so long as the combo is logical, of course). I once gave a speech that advocated taking 3 main actions. My mocked-up script looked something like this:
    • What can you do? [point to audience]
    • First, [hold up one finger, take one step]
    • Second, [hold up two fingers, take two steps]
    • Third, [hold up 3 fingers, take third step, pause]
  • Finally, practice in the mirror to see how your gestures convey, and mark up your script accordingly.

I hope these tips help you speak with confidence, knowing that your hands will help—not hurt—your delivery.

Please post your comments. What tips do you have that might help others? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #9 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll look at what occurs in the prewriting stage.

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Headshot tight  About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

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