Lauren: What do I do with my hands?

Blogger: Lauren Stuart
Lauren studied a Bachelor of Theatre Arts (Acting) at USQ before beginning her professional career as Entertainment Coordinator at Australia Zoo. She’s now living her dream as a Corporate Course Manager at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), providing vocal coaching and presentation skills training to professionals across the globe

It seems we travel through life with no question of the importance or purpose of our hands until we are speaking in public. Then, these alien extensions seem to do nothing but work against us.

The power of gesture is extraordinary. We decipher meaning from gestures every waking moment of our personal and professional lives. Gestures can almost entirely influence the way we interpret what someone is trying to say – sometimes we don’t even require words…

Our non-verbal behaviour is directly linked to the limbic system within our brain – our emotional epicentre. As Joe Navarro states in his book What Every Body is Saying (2008): 'our limbic system reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought. For that reason, it gives off a true response to information coming in from the environment.' Despite what our logical mind is verbalising, our physical body and gestures are communicating how we really feel.

Our physical body and gestures communicate how we really feel.

Keep with me on the science stuff a little longer; the reason we don’t know what to do with our hands when we’re presenting is because, under pressure, our brain’s limbic system is sending screaming signals to our hands to 'calm us down!' We do this by pacifying ourselves; by holding, touching, squeezing parts of our bodies that stimulate nerve endings and essentially make us feel better. It’s our brain’s way of giving us that “you’re ok” hug. These pacifying behaviours take many forms, and can often be an individual gauge of just how uncomfortable someone is. They become subconscious habits. I personally pull at my fingers and wring my hands when feeling slightly nervous, and know that if that wringing hand heads north, to my ear lobe, we’re getting into serious anxious territory.

So, how do we combat the paradox of feeling nervous but looking confident instead of looking nervous?

For the pragmatists out there, those who want a method to the madness, here are some 'go to' tips when you are losing control of your flailing phalanges.

'Angela Merkel, July 2010' by Armin Linnartz [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Find a safe harbour

Rest your hands loosely near your navel. Don’t grip on for dear life, but find a sitting place for them to layer on top of one another, or float them there – palms towards your navel. It feels awkward but this can keep your gestures from distracting the viewer from your message. They can move out to make a point, and return to the same place when the point has been made.

You don’t have to get all Angela Merkel on us, but you can present a neutral, relaxed look instead. For an example, check out Christie Smith in this YouTube video called 'It’s time to get under the covers' (TEDxBeaconStreet).

2. Move the right way

We read from left to right, right? So when on-stage think of beginning your first point stage-right and moving towards stage-left as you proceed. It is helpful to move your hands in the same direction so people can digest the points with greater clarity.

3. Signpost important points with corresponding gestures

Gestures that are motivated by a specific objective; to shock, to inspire, to rally (what we call ‘actions’ in the acting world), can mark major emotional moments in a story or presentation. When you need to give weight to a message don’t just tell your audience, show them by choosing a specific action to motivate your movement.

I am particularly interested in bringing people’s awareness to the way their gestures impact their message and finding ways for them to feel comfort in behaviour that challenges subconscious habits. If you rehearse it well, you can enhance the message you are delivering, giving you complete control over how you’re being received. It’s the old story of practice makes perfect. And in this case 'perfect' is being authentic, engaging, and having the mind, voice, and body working as one.

Presentation skills are essential in your studies and career. For more ways to deliver powerful presentations watch Lauren’s Beyond the Books Online Series webinar, ‘Body language basics you can start using now’, or check out Carolyn’s strategies for public speaking success. To learn more about Lauren visit the NIDA Corporate website or head to the NIDA blog for further presentation tips.


Carolyn: Strategies for public speaking success

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USQ Insider #7 – Oral presentations