Every time I give a Presentation Skills Workshop the same questions crop up:

  • "What do I do with my hands?"
  • "I feel so self-conscious standing in front of people."
  • "I've been told to stay still and not to use gesture."
  • "I can't talk without using my hands!"

Well I'm not surprised. There's no way you can talk credibly and passionately without using your hands. Try describing how Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins crossed the winning line and won gold for GB in rowing, or how Mo Farah out-paced the field in athletics and how Tom Daley, despite an emotionally searing year, won bronze for diving, without using your hands. Go on, try it right now. It's not impossible but without gesture your account is likely to be as dull as ditchwater.

As human beings it's natural to use our hands to describe, emphasise, and transmit the emotional content of our message. All of us, adults and children alike, are hard-wired to use gesture and speech simultaneously. In fact gesture is processed in the same part of the brain as speech and sign language (Broca's Brain). That might tell us a thing or two!

Some hand gestures are a slam dunk. Everyday we make hundreds of gestures many of which are made unconsciously and others which we make quite deliberately for effect.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes you make a 'wind up' motion to conjure up a word you can't quite remember? I'll bet you gesture first to one side and then to another when making contrasting statements, effectively guiding your listener to compartmentalize those key points. You probably hold up your fingers one by one when enumerating points. And I'm sure you hold your palms close together to indicate something small or bring them wide apart to describe the humongous fish you caught on last summer's fishing trip. Don't you happily demonstrate your golf swing to anyone who'll watch and listen?

We gesture quite naturally all the time; we just don't observe ourselves doing it. But then one day we find ourselves in front of an audience and we suddenly become self-conscious and small and become concerned that people will judge us as being insincere or fake if we use larger gestures. Well it's time to get over ourselves, claim our space and refuse to be small and insignificant any longer.

Here are a few handy RADA tips to make your next speech or presentation more credible, engaging and inspiring:

  • Start by standing with your feet a hip-width apart. Keep your weight slightly towards the balls of your feet.
  • Don't lock your knees, keep them soft. Tension in your knees and thighs will block your breath and voice making you sound tense and strained.
  • Let your gesture be more expansive. It will immediately reflect in your voice.
  • Think of gesture as starting at the elbow and then moving towards your hands. We Brits have a real fear of gesturing higher than waist level and this can make us look and sound tentative and uncommitted.
  • Open your palms to appear friendly, approachable and inclusive.
  • Remember gesture should always be appropriate. Avoid windmilling or looking like a traffic cop. Too much gesture can distract from your message.

And finally like our Olympic athletes, be passionate, focused and totally committed to what you're saying and see how using gesture helps you become a better communicator in business.

The above are just some of the skills tutors at RADA Business can help you develop.

Sheelagh offers one-to-one coaching and is running one of our autumn Presentation Skills Evening classes. To find out more about this training visit our One-to-One Coaching page or our Short courses page.