This is one of the commonest questions I get asked on my presentation skills courses, and it never ceases to surprise me. Many presenters seem to regard their hands as unruly children, who must be usefully employed at all times if they are not to run off and make a nuisance of themselves.
That’s why presenters tend to love ‘clicking’ through their slides and waving laser pointers around. It keeps at least one hand busy and out of harm’s way.
On a recent course, one of my trainees held a piece of paper in one of her hands for the entire duration of her presentation. I thought at first that it was needed as a prompt but I noticed that she never once looked at it. When I asked her about this during the feedback session, she said a previous trainer had told her always to hold a piece of paper so that at least one of her hands had an obvious purpose.
I thought this advice was bizarre to say the least. And why was it needed? We don’t normally spend time obsessing about what to do with our hands, so why do they bother us so much during presentations?
Gestures should emphasise content appropriately
To me the purpose of hands during a presentation is obvious: they are there to make gestures that emphasise content when appropriate and be unobtrusive otherwise.
That doesn’t mean stuffing them in your pockets, clasping them behind your back, folding them across your body or holding them rigidly by your side.These are all defensive gestures that erect barriers between you and your audience, making it difficult for them to trust you and believe what you say.
It does mean keeping them in a loose, open and relaxed position so that they are ready to be employed when needed.
The ‘truth plane’
In his book Winning Body Language, Mark Bowen advises keeping hands in what he calls ‘the truth plane’ – the area on a level with your belly button. One way to do this is to start with fingers lightly interlaced, moving the hands outward to gesture. Apparently keeping your hands at this level enables you to feel calm, centred and secure, with beneficial effects on your voice and breathing.
According to Bowden, keeping your hands in the truth plane also sends out a clear signal that the audience can be confident in you and your message. That’s because you are displaying and revealing the most vulnerable area of your body where you keep your vital organs. They therefore perceive you as honest, authentic and trustworthy, with nothing to hide. You might also like to see Bowden’s TED talk: http://www.tedxtoronto.com/talks/mark-bowden/
Why pointless gestures distract
The main purpose of hand gestures, as indicated earlier, is to emphasise important points of content. Gestures tend to lose their power, though, if they are wild, repetitive or erratic. Pointless arm-waving, finger-pointing or table-thumping have no place in persuasive presentations. Rather, they threaten to distract attention entirely from what you are saying.
Suit the word to the gesture, the gesture to the word and you won’t go far wrong.
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