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Hands On: Using Gestures in Presentations

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Wed Aug 10 2016

Hands On: Using Gestures in Presentations
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Hands are not something we focus on when preparing for a presentation. Yet when standing at the front of a room, suffering from nerves, your hands become unwelcome and awkward appendages.

When I deliver the ATD Presentation Skills Certificate Program, one of the most frequent questions I get is, “What should I do with my hands?” To add to the uncertainty, many presenters remember some misguided advice they've heard somewhere along the way: "Don't talk with your hands." Thus, hands are frequently found stuffed in pockets, gripping a podium, or playing with their owner's hair, glasses, or jewelry.

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In fact, hand gestures are like punctuation in a sentence. They help clarify what you're saying and add emphasis to your message. They are an expressive complement to your vocal delivery. And just like you would use commas and exclamation points purposefully to make a sentence clearer, so should you use hand gestures with intention rather than randomly.

Here are some suggestions on how to use your hands in a presentation for maximum effect: 

  • Videotape yourself making a presentation so you can get an accurate assessment of how and how much you gesture.

  • Avoid repetitive gestures, such as stabbing the air with your finger or using air quotes, that distract your audience rather than focus them.

  • Aim for open, expressive gestures where hands are out beyond your chest. Try not to keep your arms tightly pinned to your body.

  • Don't point. Pointing looks too much like scolding and is inappropriate in business presentations.

Intentionally use your hands to illustrate what you're saying. Show how big or vast something is, hold up fingers to represent a number, or demonstrate relative sizes, heights, or depths. 

Above all, be guided by what's comfortable for you. Strive for natural. If you are an enthusiastic speaker who frequently uses your hands for emphasis don't try and subdue them. This will only look inauthentic. If you are a more controlled and quiet speaker, be satisfied with minimal gestures but make the ones you do use powerful.

If you’d like to get some practice on using appropriate gestures in a presentation and find out what to do with your hands when you’re not gesturing, join me at one of my upcoming ATD Presentation Skills Certificate Programs.

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