Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for President Reagan and current columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has a favorite saying about presentation audiences: “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!”
Regardless of how compelling you believe your message to be, your audience won’t become engaged unless you physically demonstrate just how compelled you feel. To do that, you need to raise the volume of your voice, add some inflection to your key words, and bring your upper body into play. We emphasize upper, because with the possible exception of Elvis Presley, none of us can really add to the quality of our presentations with movements of the lower body.
The problem is most people really don’t know where to put or what to do with their hands. They would just as soon have their arms fall off before a public speaking appearance because they seem to both get in the way and, worse, accentuate nervousness. Having trained literally tens of thousands of speakers over the years, we’ve seen virtually everything that a person could possible do with their hands when up in front of the group. Here are by far the most popular things that we suggest you become aware of and avoid:
The “Fig Leaf”
The most favored position for most people’s hands is the clasped position. The hands come together like magnets right at the belt buckle point. We say magnets because once those hands come together, there’s no way that they’re coming apart again. It’s as though your hands have been super-glued together. People try to break their hands apart, but it’s very difficult to do.
When your hands are together in front, with the back of your hands facing the audience and covering your private parts, it’s commonly referred to as the “fig leaf position.” For some reason this position seems a little more popular with the guys. Worse is the “talking fig leaf,” where you gesture with your hands while they are in this position. Needless to say that can be a real distraction.
The reverse of this is when your hands are clasped together behind your back, which is commonly referred to as the “reverse fig leaf” or what we like to call “parade rest” for those of you with a military background.
The “Johnny Carson”
It’s also popular to put one or two hands in your pockets. It looks comfortable, but you simply handicap your ability to gesture, describe, and emphasize key points. Also, having your hands in your pockets typically leads to key swirling or change jingling, or what we term “executive worry beads”. People in the audience start to count to themselves silently, “Well, let’s see: that sounds like about 4 quarters, 3 dimes, and a nickel. I’ll bet it’s around $1.35.”
Obviously, this is distracting. And it is hard to describe ‘expansion’ or a ‘big opportunity’ to your audience when your hands are in your pants.
The “Spider on the Mirror”
Until his handlers taught him otherwise, Dick Cheney would use this annoying gesture every time he would do something embarrassing to the administration and have to go on “Meet the Press” or another Sunday TV talk show to explain himself. The “spider on the mirror” involves both hands connected at the fingertips, with the palms moving toward and away from each other, repeatedly.
The “Pointing Dancer”
This one’s a real combo-platter of problems. It involves a “Saturday Night Fever” type of movement were the speaker dances and moves back and forth, while pointing up and down. While studying his steps, the audience misses the message. These movements should be reserved for the dance floor.
Actually, you need to stay away from pointing and using fingers all together. A single finger straight up in the air, no matter which one it is, looks ugly and appears arrogant and condescending. It conjures up images of scolding, road rage, and various cultural insults. Different fingers also mean different things and in a culture as diverse as ours. Why take a chance? Which leads us to another finger problem:
The “Bad Accountant”
We often see people hold up two fingers and say, “There are three things that I want to tell you about.” It’s inconsistent, and immediately takes the audience off your message. Still others will show a complete hand and name five things and count each finger for everything on the list. “The first thing is (grabbing first finger), the second thing is (grabbing second finger)”, and so on. It ends up looking like the nursery rhyme about “This little piggy went to the market…” Plus, it will get your hands together again causing potential magnet problems.
The “Phone Booth”
We know you’ve all seen presenters who spend the entire time in front of the group with their arms clasped around their chests, as if they are hugging themselves. Comfortable, perhaps, especially if the room is chilled, but not very user friendly.
What you should do…
Break out of the phone booth and take the handcuffs off. You have the whole front of the room with empty space. Use it wisely to visually mirror the story that you are trying to depict, and use your full wingspan to describe and explain. Adopt a stance that both appears balanced and also allows you to keep from needing or wanting to rock or pace back and forth.
Then, gesture from the shoulders, not the elbows. Use your hands to describe and emphasize. Drop your hands down to your side (neutral position) when you’re starting your speech or when you’re done gesturing.
When you gesture from the neutral position, your gestures become more emphatic. Dropping your hands down to your side is, for many, difficult to do. Yet it is from this neutral position that your gestures have the widest range, and thus the ability to show the extent of your passion.
And when they sense the passion, they listen.