Body Language

What Do I Do With My Hands?


The question I hear frequently from audiences is “What do I do with my hands?” It’s amazing. We communicate daily and never think about our hands until we stand up. As soon as we become public speakers it’s as if we discover theses long appendages scraping the floor.

Body language is more than half the message so how you use your hands is important. And gestures are a vital part of the message. Consider this: Have you ever seen an enthusiastic person stand at attention as they share their exciting news? Nobody stands stiffly when they’re expressing emotion. How do you gesture in a way that’s effective yet not over the top?

Here are some of the most common mistakes people make when they gesture:

Don’t Do This

Figleaf Position. This is where you clasp your hands in front of you. It looks sedate-not powerful.

Wooden Soldier. This presenter has both hands at the sides. If you start with this position, move out of it quickly or else you’ll look stiff and unapproachable.

At Ease. Both hands are held behind the back in military fashion. If you maintain this position people will soon wonder if you have hands. Why are you hiding them?

Hands in Pockets. I don’t see this posture as often. The word must have gotten out. If you keep both hands in your pockets, you’ll lose energy and expressiveness.

The Juggler. Here is where your hands are in perpetual motion and never come to a stop. The impression is nervousness and it’s also distracting to watch.

Pointing Finger. Beware of pointing at the audience. A pointing finger can be perceived as accusatory, or chastising. Instead, use an open handed gesture to refer to an audience member. It’s warmer and more neutral.

Fidgeting. Overall fidgeting communicates nervousness. It’s your body telling you to move your hands. So stop holding back Gesture, but do so effectively.

Do This:

Above the Waist. As soon as possible, bring your hands above the waist. Hands below the waist are perceived as tentative. Your power space is between your waist and your face. Keep your gestures in this box. When Bill Clinton was running for president, he used wide, sweeping gestures that made him look untrustworthy. His coaches told him to gesture within the box. It became known as the Clinton box.

Find a Rest Position. When you start flailing and over gesticulating, it’s time to come to a stop. Find a resting position. It may be one hand on top of the over with your elbows at your waist. Think of the resting position as home base. You can continue to return to it when you’re hands are moving too much or you need to take a pause.

Hold the Ball. A powerful position is to hold your hands above the waist as if you’re holding a basketball. Steve Jobs used this gesture.

Count Off. When you have 3 or more agenda items, you can tick off the points on your fingers as if you’re going through a list.

Palms Up. To convey honesty, hold your hands waist high and turn your palms up. (Don’t shrug your shoulders or you’ll look unsure).

Palms Down. Keep your palms waist high and turn your palms down so that the tops of your hands are visible. Now make a downward movement. This conveys authority and can be good for quieting a crowd. President Obama used this gesture.

Steepling. Position your hands at waist level and bring your hands together with just the fingertips touching. This posture communicates confidence but can also convey authority. Use this gesture sparingly. It can be meant to intimidate or establish dominance.

Consider Culture. Body language has different meanings in certain cultures. For example, if you’re speaking in Brazil, do not use the A-OK hand gesture. It’s considered an obscenity. Realize that not all cultures value gesturing as much as in the U.S.  The Mediterranean and Hispanic cultures are expressive and use a lot of gestures. In Asia, Skandinavia and Germanic cultures, they use fewer hand movements.  When I was first starting out in my business, I had a sales call at the United Nations. The person interviewing me was from Germany. When I gestured her eyes would look at my hands. I’d make another gesture, and she would be riveted on my hands. Very quickly, I put my hands in my lap. For her, gesturing was a distraction.

Why Use Gestures? There is research that demonstrates the impact of gestures. Harvard Business Review interviewed Professor Josef Cornelissen of Erasmus University.

Erasmus University conducted a study whereby they asked experienced investors to watch a video of entrepreneurs pitching a medical device. They hired actors to play the entrepreneurs. The result was that the Venture Capitalists were more interested in the presenters who used gestures to explain the idea than when they used anecdotes, metaphors and other rhetoric.

This flies in the face of current emphasis on storytelling. What they researchers discovered was that gesturing made the product more concrete, helping investors to understand the product. Gesturing also conveys excitement and passion is a quality that investors value. However, too much gesturing can work against the presenter, making it look like pantomime. Use a few strategic gestures to add impact and influence to your presentations.

If gestures don’t come naturally to you. Practice some of the gestures mentioned above.

Practice but be natural. Use these tips and gesture often and you’ll win over the audience hands down.

Joel Osteen's Hands Betrayed Him


What do gestures tell us about a public speaker? We learned a lot about Joel Osteen's gestures during his interview about his response to the hurricane. Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the city of Houston which is the 4th largest city in the country. There was extensive flooding requiring people to be evacuated by rescue workers and helicopters. Thousands of people were in search of shelter and could not return to their homes.


The question people wanted to know was Why didn't Pastor Joel Osteen open Lakewood Church to the people of Houston? The Compaq Center has the capacity to hold 16,285 people. After much criticism on social media, the center accepted hurricane victims on Tuesday.

When Joel was interviewed by CBS TV he explained that he didn't open his center as a shelter because he was not asked by the city. He further explained that the best places for shelter were where there were already resources, supplies, and personnel on the ground. It didn't sound convincing on the surface. But he still could have salvaged his reputation by admitting the mistake and being remorseful. Instead, he pivoted to his message points and gave what seemed to be a presentation. His hands were the giveaway. He used the same wide-sweeping gestures that are part of his signature style when he is on the main stage in front of thousands of people. The CBS interview was directed to three journalists (although it was broadcast to millions of viewers). In media interviews and conversations, people gesture more naturally with their hands closer to their body.

While using wider gestures may be part of the pastor's style, it gave the impression of formality rather than intimacy and sincerity. That is not to say he was dishonest. I'll leave that to the top body language experts. The point is this. To appear sincere, your body language needs to be relaxed and appropriate to the situation. Wide gestures work well in a stadium but seem exaggerated when communicating on a television show or satellite interview. For crisis communication to be effective, it's imperative to plan your delivery as well as your message points.

For more tips visit

Creating Fireworks on Stage

Why can't presentations be like fireworks? Why is it that some public speakers create energy explosions while others fizzle out? What if you could create your own fireworks on stage?

Is Amy Cuddy's Wonder Woman Pose A Fraud?


ellevate presentationMy colleague TJ Walker challenged the validity of Harvard professor, Amy Cuddy's power pose. Amy Cuddy has one of the most popular youtube videos on body language. She advises people to adopt the Wonder Woman pose (hands on hips) to feel powerful when speaking in public. In TJ's twitter post today, he disputes this claim and calls it a fraud. Here's my opinion. The power pose was recommended to assuage public speaking fear. It's based on neuroscience research and when this pose is held for 2 minutes, there is an increase in testosterone. Higher levels of the hormone, testosterone, are found in those who are risk takers.

What was novel was that there was Harvard research backing up her claims. Do I think she's a fraud? No. Unless the research is flawed, it's helpful to have a technique to increase confidence. And there is a body language of confidence. The mind-body connection is widely accepted.

However, as an executive speech coach who works with women leaders and male executives, I don't claim that this one pose is a panacea for public speaking fear, nor does it make you a knockout presenter. TJ makes several good points. Amy Cuddy had a compelling story, a strong structure to her speech, and good visuals. I always tell my clients that great delivery sits on great structure. Your presentation delivery is only as good as your organization. Public speaking success is 90% preparation and 10% delivery.

A client recently hired me for four hours to work on a 15 minute high stakes presentation. That did not include the time she spent with the graphic designer.

So to feel confident, the first step is preparation, planning, and a good, strong message. Presenters need to master their minds as well as their skill set. Does it help to use the power pose? Probably. I teach it to audiences. It makes them feel powerful. But it's not the whole story. There are other physical skills I give them. But I do believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind.

So as long as presenters prepare and practice their message, why not strike a pose and feel powerful?

First Impressions (by Kathy McShane) Guest Blogger

McShane book_First Impressions impact all pubic speaking and communication. Read about First Impressions in an Excerpt from The Survivor’s Guide for Female Entrepreneurs, by Guest  Blogger  Kathy McShane We only have one chance to make a first impression. And that first impression can mean everything as you set out to make your mark in the business world. According to, a website providing free career skills and management techniques, it takes just a quick glance – maybe three seconds – for someone to evaluate you when you first meet, and this first impression is unlikely to change. So it’s important to think about the impression you want to leave. After all, as a small business owner, you are the face of your business.

When making that all-important first impression, keep these ideas in mind:

Body language speaks volumes. People you meet for the first time will pay as much attention to your body language as they will to your words. In fact, you’ll be judged by your body language before you even open your mouth. Be sure to uncross your arms and have an easy, ready smile at all times. Straighten your posture and offer a strong handshake.

Dress for the occasion. Find out what the “dress code” is at the location where you’ll be meeting people and plan appropriately. Choose an outfit that will complement your personality, boost your confidence and feel comfortable. Don’t wear a suit if you’re visiting a high-tech company, and don’t wear blue jeans to a bank. One business owner, hoping to seal a $24 million deal, was in competition with two other groups. The potential client told them all to dress in summer casual. The two competitors dressed in pinstriped suits. Guess who got the deal?

Be in the moment. Pay attention to the people you are meeting. Greet them with a firm handshake, look them in the eye and smile. Repeat their names as a way of remembering. Before going into the meeting or event, turn off digital devices.

Be engaged. Become immediately engaged in your discussion with the other person. Make sure to mention his or her name at least once during your conversation. This shows that you are interested and that you’ve paid attention.

Don’t interrupt. Unfortunately, people talk over each other and interrupt all the time. It may have to do with the digital age that we live in, which makes us feel that everything has to be responded to immediately. It’s easy to text or email while the other person is doing the same; in effect, you are engaged with your device and not with the person. When you are meeting someone face to face, however, be sure the other person is finished speaking before you begin to add to the conversation. Allow yourself to take a breath and process the previous comments. The silence may seem like forever, but it’s usually only a few seconds.

Throughout our journey as entrepreneurs, we will meet a lot of people and make many connections. And every connection gives us only one chance to make a great first impression. Be sure to make the most of it!

The Power of Hand-to-Hand Contact

What is the equal opportunity communication that favors no gender? In every presentation skills seminar and in each initial executive speech coaching session, I spend time demonstrating the business handshake. Why discuss something so basic that we do every day? Because business can be lost due to an ineffective handshake. Just like two dogs sniffing each other, a handshake is the first point of contact. And many people don't realize the handshake is a presentation. To learn how to shake hands  and use gestures for  maximum impact, watch this TEDx video by Allan Pease.


Get Out Of My Face!


What Successful Public Speakers Know About Space

"Get out of my face!" If you've ever heard someone say that, you have experienced pragmatics. Space is a form of communication. The best public speakers know how to use space strategically to communicate a message and influence group dynamics. Watch this video to learn more.

Keep Your Eye on Pragmatics When Presenting


Public speaking is not just about the spoken word. As a presenter you must know your content and your audience. But you also need to know about pragmatics. Pragmatics is the relations between words, expressions, or symbols and their users. And nothing communicates more powerfully than the eyes. Watch this video to learn about eye contact and public speaking.

Body Language is the Message


A professor once said, "Words conceal rather than reveal". If that's true, how does the listener hear the real message? The answer is the study of pragmatics. Non-verbal communication is as important to every public speaker as the words they prepare. But too often, public speaking becomes an exercise in memorizing words without much thought to their physical presentation.

If the public speaker is unprepared, it will be communicated through nervous body language. The body will betray the presenter every time. Most of the message is non-verbal. For that reason, it's imperative that public speakers study pragmatics. Watch this video to learn about body language.

Let Your Hands Do the Talking: The Science of Gestures

Several years ago, my friend adopted Mimi, an 18 month old girl from China. Not long after, I came to visit her and noticed that Mimi was making a gesture for more food. My friend and I are both speech pathologists, and I recognized that she had taught Mimi sign language - and it was working. She was 18 months old and did not understand or speak English, but she was able to communicate with her English-speaking mother using sign language. It was interesting to me when I read this article on The Science of Gestures. I always emphasize the use of gestures with my clients for a number of reasons. Gestures serve to:

  1. make the presenter look confident.
  2. channel nervous energy.
  3. emphasize certain words or points, making the speaker more dynamic.
  4. reduce monotone, enabling speakers to vary intonation.

But I wasn't aware of the neuroscience behind gesturing. In two separate studies with children, researchers found that using and watching gestures helped students retain more information.

Most speakers are both visual and auditory presenters. That means they use the spoken word and they project PowerPoint slides. The audience sees and hears the message but the missing link is kinesthetic learning. And that's where gestures come in.

Effective public speakers anchor their message with gestures. I once attended a presentation where the speaker told the audience, "Touch your mind and your heart," to help the them remember his point.

We all know someone who speaks with their hands. I remember one man who gesticulated wildly whenever he spoke. This irritated his wife to no end. One day in frustration, she grabbed his hands as he was speaking. He stopped the conversation, looked at her and pleaded, "Let me talk!" It seemed hand movements were a way for him to communicate.

It turns out that using gestures help us to clear our cache, or short-term memory, when we are speaking. Moving our hands in conversation and while presenting, allows us to process more information-like Mimi who learned sign language at 18 months.  But gestures are not just for children. They have a lot of value for adult public speakers, as well.

Not sure what to do with your hands? Watch this youtube video and find out.

I've Got the Power: How to Feel Powerful As a Public Speaker


You may be about to go on stage to speak before a difficult audience. Maybe you're getting ready for a job interview. Or you could be about to present at a high stakes meeting. There is a way you can automatically feel powerful when speaking in public or giving a presentation. It's all about mastering body language. Yes, there is a body language of power. I'm not talking about "posturing" and psyching the other person out. Power is about putting your body into certain positions before you enter the presentation room. There's a science to body language and power. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, explains how to go from powerless to powerful and it's all in your control. Watch her TED talk to learn how these positions can make you a powerful leader, public speaker, or job candidate.