Where To Place Your Hands During A Presentation

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On May 7, 2012  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

HANDle with care

In our previous post we talked about the use of gestures and how they can be used to help add impact to our message and presentation style.

The reality though is that some people are very careful with the way they use their hands, and expansive gestures simply don’t feel right for them.  Other people know that they are big gesticulators but find their hands get ‘stage fright’ just at the start of a presentation.  If you fall into one of these 2 categories then this post is for you.  Within this blog we’ll explore how to create a stress free start to a presentation, what to do to give your hands/arms the excuse to be free, and some actions to avoid.

Creating a stress-free start to a presentation
For 99% of people the start of a presentation is the hardest.  One of the ways of taking some of the anxiety out of the situation is to make the start as simple as possible; and that means getting rid of things to worry about – like what to do with your hands.

For a lot of people the simplest solution is to hold a large chunky pen in both hands, such as a whiteboard marker.  For almost everyone this instantly solves the problem of where to place their hands, and because their hands are relaxed and anchored it prevents them fidgeting and looking uncomfortable.  Hint: holding a presentation ‘clicker’ is not as effective as a pen because anything technical can cause us to worry about what could go wrong.  And we all know that if it can go wrong it probably will!

If you’re presenting using a lectern, an alternative to the above is to hold the sides of the lectern.  Don’t hold onto it with a white-knuckled grip though as you’ll look like you’re hanging onto it for dear life.

A similar strategy you can use if you’re not presenting with a lectern is to place your hands/touch the table in front of you.  Hint: this doesn’t work if you’re very tall or have short arms as you’ll end up leaning over the table and possibly intimidating your audience.

The final option is to find your own position where your hands feel naturally comfortable and relaxed.  The 3 most common positions are the Cradle where the back of one hand rests in the palm of the other; the Gate where the fingers are inter-laced; and the Handshake where the palms are together and at right angles with the fingers folded over.

The trick to creating a stress-free start to your presentation, as far as your hands are concerned, is to experiment, even in front of a mirror, to find out what feels and looks right for you.

However, you can’t keep your hands in the same position forever as you’ll eventually look stiff and awkward. So at some point you’ll need to give your gestures the excuse to be free – which is what we’ll cover now.

Giving your gestures the excuse to be free
If you’re a natural gesturer you’ll probably find that after the first 60 seconds of the presentation your hands will take on a life of their own without you thinking about it. In which case you might find our previous post ‘What should I do with my hands?’ useful.

If gesturing is not something you do normally then we recommend you ‘gesture with purpose’ i.e. use gestures when there is naturally a reason or excuse for doing so.

Some examples include:

•   Referring to a visual aid i.e. open-palm pointing at a PowerPoint® slide or holding up a handout or prop.

•   Pointing to a specific part of a slide/handout etc.  And yes, you can walk in front of the projector to do so.  This shows confidence and helps   the audience to follow what you’re saying (clearly you need to step away from the slide once you’ve made your point).  This is a great technique for highlighting a point on a graph, drawing your audience to some figures within a table, or emphasising a section of a photograph, diagram or flowchart.

•   Counting numbers on your fingers e.g. ‘We’re going to talk about 3 areas today’.

•   Referring to the audience, or individuals within it, using open palm gestures.

For many people, even those that do not naturally gesture very much, the above techniques will free up their body language and thereafter they’ll remain looking relaxed and comfortable.  Having said that, there are some things to avoid.

Actions to avoid
•   Dead arm/s:  Without wanting to be unkind, teh ex-Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard suffers from this.  You know that look – when the arms and hands are stiff, wooden – almost like they don’t belong to the presenter’s body.  Exaggerated gesturing can actually make this look worse as the speaker can appear false and manufactured.  The quickest solution is to find a comfortable anchor position and to gesture with purpose as described above.

•   Fig-leaf posture: This is when we hold our hands together in front of our ‘nether regions’.  It’s a very nervous-looking stance and will certainly make you appear uncomfortable.  The solution is simple however.  Keep your hands in whatever position feels right for you and then bend your elbows so your hands rise to waist-height or above.  What’s terrific about this technique is that it opens your shoulders and chest helping increase your personal presence as well as your voice projection – all great for looking and sounding confident!

•   Pocket-picking: A post on using one’s hands wouldn’t be complete without talking about hands in pockets.  At secondnature we are completely comfortable with people having a hand in their pocket in a normal presentation situation – as long as they aren’t doing anything with their hand whilst it’s in their pocket….e.g. jangling keys, coins etc – and that they don’t keep it there indefinitely.  What does look uncomfortable is someone that repeatedly goes to put their hand in their pocket and picks at the edge of it, and then withdraws their hand.  This will certainly make you look nervous.  If that’s where your hand wants to anchor for a while, let it. You’ll actually look a lot more calm and relaxed and let’s face it – who is going to dismiss the quality of your content because you had a hand in your pocket for 5 seconds or so?

The key when using gestures, or not, is to find a style that works for you.  When you’re not using them find an approach that still helps you come across as relaxed and comfortable.  In other words, don’t try to be someone you’re not.

p.s. remember it’s your personality that powers your presentation performance.


Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

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Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.