What should I do with my hands? - Speakers’ body language 101

“What should I do with my hands?” – Speakers’ body language for leaders

July 27, 2016

Our clients frequently ask, “What should I do with my hands?”.

As soon as we become conscious of our bodies, they get in our way. When we’re faced with an audience, we become like learner drivers, unable to operate all the controls smoothly.

Advice to ‘act naturally’ isn’t useful, as being watched by so many people isn’t a natural situation. Besides, communicating to an audience requires different body language than everyday, one-to-one communication.

Your on-stage body language matters

We’ve all seen powerful speakers, whether in person or on platforms such as TED.com. We use words like ‘charisma’ and ‘presence’ to describe their almost magical power over listeners.

We’ve also seen those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Some speakers are uncomfortable to watch. Others use such distracting body language that we cannot focus on what they are saying.

You are your talk’s most important visual aid

We believe that the best (or worst) visual aid in a talk is the presenter’s body language. That’s why many of the world’s best speakers don’t use presentation decks. Strong, positive non-verbal communication can be more powerful.

Here, we share our guidelines for best use of your hands, eye contact and on-stage movement.

But to finish, we’ll explain why improving your content will have the biggest impact of all on your body language.

Speakers’ body language 101

– “What should I do with my hands?”

Hand gestures are best used to emphasise key points. They also add energy to your presentation, particularly when you use them above shoulder-height. Jill Bolte’s TED talk demonstrates this well.

Too much movement can be distracting, however. Lots of tiny movements or flapping your arms around makes you look smaller and unconfident. Go for big, bold, purposeful gestures that you hold for a few seconds. These convey presence, leadership and authority.

When you aren’t using your hands to emphasise what you’re saying, let them hang in a neutral and open position by your sides. This sounds and feels odd at first – but watch Ken Robinson to see how effective it can be.

If you are using a lectern, then above-shoulder gestures will be the only ones your audience can see. If you choose to rest your hands on the lectern, keep them hands loose and relaxed. Avoid looking as though you are hanging on for dear life!

– “What’s the right amount of eye contact to make?”

Eye contact is your opportunity to make a personal connection with your audience. It conveys that you are speaking to each person individually.

Knowing this, many speakers continually sweep their eyes across the audience. The brevity of any eye contact as a result of this approach fails to connect deeply enough.

Instead, aim to hold eye contact while you express a complete sentence or thought. As a guide, five seconds of eye contact is about right to make that audience member feel that you’ve singled them out (in a good way!). This takes practice to get used to, as it initially feels like a long time.

Only talk when facing your audience. If you need to look down at your notes, wait until you are ready to look up again before resuming.

– “Should I move around or stay still?”

As with hand gestures, deliberate movements that emphasise your content work well. But too much movement is distracting. Getting the balance right takes practice.

Aim to stand still for the majority of your talk. This will convey confidence and authority. Plan in advance when you will move, combing those movements with breaks in your content. Express a full thought or point in your new position before moving again.

Avoid pacing, which makes a speaker look distressed. Make a point, move to another part of the space and make your next point. Aim to emulate a pleasant countryside walk from viewpoint to viewpoint, rather than a nervous wait outside of a labour ward!

Stronger content leads to better body language

The most dramatic improvements to your delivery will come from honing your content. Focusing only on body language is like applying fresh paint to a cracked wall. It’s a superficial improvement. Weak body language is a symptom; weak content is often the cause.

We’ve found that people’s body language naturally improves ten-fold once they feel confident and comfortable about the content of their talk.

That’s why we focus on getting that right first:

  • We ensure our clients have a clear message for their audience to take away.
  • We help them break their content into key points.
  • We work with them to find the stories and evidence to back up those points.
  • We create a subtle structure that gently guides the speaker and their audience through from start to finish.
  • We strengthen the language use, making word choices and phrases more powerful.
  • We refine the start and end until they produce maximum impact.

Only then do we coach our clients on delivery techniques that will engage the audience.

Start your journey to world-class public speaking skills now

First, download our free ebook to start your journey towards becoming a Powerful Presenter.

You’ll learn our 5-step process for transforming dull, forgettable and un-engaging presentations into your most Powerful Presentations yet: inspirational, memorable and persuasive.

It’s full of practical tips and insightful quotes that will help you make immediate improvements to your leadership talks and presentations, including:

  • Increased confidence when you talk and present.
  • Improved ability to persuade your audience.
  • Greater engagement with your audience.
  • Practical ways to plan and structure your talks.
  • The inspiration and motivation to change.

Download your free copy of our Five Steps to Improve your Leadership Talks ebook now.

Make your next talk your best yet

We’ll support you with all aspects of your talk, from your structure and message through to your delivery and body language. You’ll be memorable, persuasive and confident.

Visit the public speaking pages on our website, call Louise on 020 7193 0130 or email louise@nullbenjaminball.com to find out more.

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