How to Improve Gestures While Presenting
One of the best scenes from an otherwise mediocre movie was when Will Farrell’s character in “Talladega Nights” couldn’t figure out what to do with his hands while he was speaking in front of a large crowd. While he spoke, his arms slowly kept rising next to him, as if possessed by their own will. The humor stems from the commonality of this issue. All presenters have wondered at one time or another, “What on earth do I do with my hands?” The uncertainty often leads to awkward, distracting, or otherwise unappealing movements while speaking.
When I worked with public speaking students, we always dedicated one class to learning specific strategies for overcoming common problematic movements while presenting. Each strategy is designed to train your brain to associate specific movements with successful presenting. Today I’m going to share some of the best tips and tricks my students used to overcome what we dubbed “Ricky Bobby hands.”
Problem: Your arms and hands move around too wildly during speech, you overuse hand-gestures, or inadvertently slap your legs while presenting.
Solution: While practicing your speech, hold a heavy thing in each hand. Soup cans work well, as do 3-5 lb weights. The extra weight requires your brain to carefully consider each movement, and whether it’s necessary. And if you slap your legs a lot while presenting, well it will only take one time doing that while holding a soup can to break the habit! The truth is, there are times during a presentation when it’s okay to simply keep your arms calmly at your side, and to use your hands mainly to emphasize a key point, shift in topic, or change in emotion.
Problem: You constantly cross your legs while presenting.
Solution: This is a common problem for many women, for psychological reasons I won’t get too far into. But in short, it stems back to confidence and feeling vulnerable. A simple remedy is to practice presenting while keeping a box between your feet. Try to find one that keeps your feet aligned with your shoulders, often a larger shoe box works well. Make sure it’s big enough that if you try to cross your legs while speaking, you will hit the box instead. If you stumble over the box and it tips over or is easily pushed away from your feet, add a couple of books to weigh it down. After a while practicing this way, it’ll become natural to stand with both feet confidently planted on the ground.
Problem: You keep putting your hands in your pockets while presenting.
Solution: Where women will cross their legs while speaking, men will often put their hands in their pockets for similar reasons, which stems back to feeling vulnerable. There are a few tricks to learn how to overcome this. First, practice as often as possible wearing clothing that does not have pockets, or has the pockets sewn shut; train your brain to believe there are no pockets to rely on. Second, if everything you own has pockets, consider putting something unpleasant to touch in your pockets while practicing. A student of mine hated the way newspaper felt, so he kept folded-up newspapers in his pockets while practicing, and as a result he began to associate putting his hands in his pockets while presenting as something unpleasant and to be avoided.
If all else fails (and your perfect presenting outfit includes pockets), try safety-pinning the pockets closed; do it on the inside of the garment so it will not be visible.
There are no shortcuts to becoming a great presenter, and with hard work and the right kind of training anyone can master refined movements and gestures while presenting. Do you have any tips or tricks that have worked well for overcoming common presenting problems? Please share them in the comments section!