When you take steps to improve your public speaking, there are many things to consider. Body language and, in particular, what to do with your arms and hands is one area.

It’s unlikely that you gave your arms or hands much thought before you decided to improve your presentation style; they do what they do. But when we are trying to learn or improve something, we become self-aware. And that can lead to feeling self-conscious and over-thinking.

The aim is to keep your arm gestures natural and fluid and ensure that your hands are not distracting. We want to come across as genuine, authentic and relaxed. 

Five things to do with your hands and arms

#1 Relax

If you feel stressed about speaking in public, you are most likely to hold tension in your upper body. This tension can result in your shoulders creeping up towards your ears and your arms pinned tightly to your sides. Stiff arms result in jerky and awkward looking movements, and this can result in having your hands moving in front of your face. 

Aim to get comfortable when you speak in public. Reducing any nervousness and including a breath, vocal, and body warm-up is essential for your public speaking success. Focus on adequate breathing rather than shallow high breaths, and you can adopt a simple breathing pattern such as box breathing.

If you fear public speaking and would like help to get comfortable, consider working with an experienced public speaking coach.

#2 Move with purpose

When people are nervous, their hands often flit about and fidget. When they’re confident, they are either still or move with intent. 

When you observe a speaker, you may notice they use on particular gesture repeatedly, or they may use gestures that distract rather than enhance. 

Give your hands some thought as part of your preparation to aim for natural movements that don’t take people away from focusing on your message.  

One way to accomplish a stillness in your upper body is to clasp both hands together in a relaxed pyramid (thumbs lightly touching at the top and fingers at the bottom). Then rest your hands around waist height. The pyramid is one resting position for your hands. However, I recommend mixing it up a bit, so it’s not the only resting position you use.

The ideal position for your hands is somewhere between your waist and your shoulders.

When Bill Clinton began his career in politics, he often used expansive, large arm gestures. Body language experts said that these gestures came across as untrustworthy. His communication advisors told him to imagine a box in front of his torso and contain his hand movements within that area. The “Clinton box” became a popular term.

#3 Own your space

When we feel stressed, we tend to shrink and make ourselves small —rounding the shoulders and adopting closed postures. Your arms may gravitate to a folded position, and you may default to clenching your fists or clasping your hands. These outwardly visible movements are a giveaway that you are not feeling confident. 

According to the psychologist, Dr Russ Harris, author of The Confidence Gap, the actions of confidence come before the feelings of confidence. We get to choose what we do with our hands; it’s an action of confidence. Despite feeling uncomfortable, we can avoid wrapping our arms around us and instead adopt a more resourceful posture. 

You may like to try power posing, made popular by social scientist Amy Cuddy . Your mindset and how you show up with open postures may help you feel more confident. It takes practice. 

When you present in a larger space with a bigger audience, then aim to match your arm gestures with more expansive movements. Your audience won’t see small hand gestures from the back of the room. Don’t be afraid to take up the space you need. 

#4 Record and review

Video is an excellent tool for reviewing your performance. The recording will enable you to assess your body language for congruency and bring any unnecessary movements or areas to address. Ideally, record every presentation you give; even if you record a few minutes, it is helpful to observe how your body reacts to any stressful situation. Some movements that you see on camera, you are probably not aware that you are doing.

When you review your video, consider the following,

  • Are my arm/hand movements smooth?
  • Do I have symmetry in my body, or am I using one arm/hand mainly?
  • Are my arm/hand movements supporting what I say, or are they distracting?
  • Are there any arm/hand movements that I repeatedly use?

Most importantly, aim for congruence so that your message and body language are aligned. 

#5 Consider your audience 

Knowing your audience is a vital part of presentation planning and delivery. When it comes to body language and hand gestures, some movements are taboo in some countries. 

The “Ok” sign is a familiar gesture to indicate a positive reaction, but in France, the symbol means “nil” or “worthless.” And, in Venezuela, Brazil, and Turkey, the gesture is offensive, especially to LGBTIQ+ people.

In summary, there is a lot to consider about your body language when learning to improve your public speaking. Aim to be as natural and authentic as you can. Develop your style and when you are setting out, try not to overthink. Record and review your talk so that you can observe and correct any stray or unwanted gestures. There are a number of articles in my blog series on non verbal communication that may interest you. Browse them here.

About Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans helps professionals to craft compelling business stories and become exceptional speakers. Lisa is a certified speaker coach, TEDx speaker coach, four times author, NLP practitioner, graphic recorder and visual storyteller, and improvisational actor. 

She has coached thousands of leaders across a range of industries, including resources, banking, finance, engineering, retail and sales as well as not-for-profit and community associations. 

If you wish to take advantage of a complimentary session in order to chat about how you can become an exceptional and successful speaker with a stand-out brand, then use this link to book a time to chat. Download my new E-book How to Build Confidence and Overcome Nervousness.