Before you give a speech or presentation, you probably give a lot of thought to the big things like your content, your visuals, and your self presentation. You might even spend some time considering your body language. But once you get up there, speakers often find it's the small things that trip them up. Two small things in particular. 

When we're in our comfort zone, we rarely think about our hands. Then stress hits and suddenly nothing you can do with them feels quite right. Clasped in front of you is too precious, behind you too domineering, but won't leaving them immobile at your sides comes across as robotic? 

With this neurotic internal-dialogue in full swing it's nearly impossible to be comfortable, and focused. Avoiding this fate requires a little knowledge and preparation. Recently on the TED Ideas blog communication expert and TEDx speaker David JP Phillips delivered it. 

2 rules for your hands when public speaking

In the course of a longer post about body language for public speakers, Phillips takes a moment to address a perennial concern of presenters, what to do with your hands. His advice boils down to two simple rules: 

  • Your gestures should be clear and functional. If you're waving your hands around, or having them do much at all, you should have a clear reason for doing so, he says. Make your gestures match your message. "If you're talking about sales figures going up, that's a good time to use a gentle, rising motion. If you're setting two rhetorical options out for your audience to consider, place your hands on either side as if you're weighing items in your palms," the post offers as examples. 

  • When you're not making a point, leave them at your sides. Phillips rattles off a whole list of hand positions you've likely seen on stage, from "the beggar" (palms up, extended in front of you) to "the peacock" (elbows cocked loosely at your sides), but for the average speaker none of these is a good idea. "Leave your hands by your sides when you're not using them," Phillips insists. 

The joy of this advice is that it's dead simple. Just about everyone can remember and implement it. The trick is simply to think about your hands ahead of time so you won't get distracted deciding whether to opt for a pocket or a behind-the-back clasp (both bad ideas, according to Phillips). Now you have one.

Published on: Mar 4, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.