Oh, the hands. So much depends on them. When we want to tie our shoes or dial a phone, we're awfully glad they exist. But when it comes to public speaking, sometimes the hands can feel like uninvited guests. They fidget, they clench, they flit all about, fueled by a nervous energy that gives them a life of their own. As Toastmasters, we strive to refine every nuance of our speaking skills, yet even the most accomplished speakers are sometimes bedeviled by those darned hands.
So what's the secret to hands? How do we reign them in and harness their expressive power? How do we avoid the troublesome and often repeated. scenario where the hands control the speaker rather than the other way around?
The first thing to remember about hands is that they are an integral and inseparable part of the overall system of body language. Yet time and again they are singled out as the primary focus of attention - the proverbial hood ornament on the make and model of our speech. It is fitting, therefore, to put special emphasis on these two appendages, for even if we master everything else, a pair of errant hands can give our luxury car the look and feel of a Yugo.
When it comes to the hands or any other aspect of body language, some pundits will simply say "act natural." Believe it or not, however, acting natural takes hard work - ask any teenager who's been caught smoking. It's similar to saying, "act comfortable," a pretty self-conflicting statement at best. The underlying theme here, however, is that a Toastmaster must "act," which is a skill that takes conscious effort and practice. So, merely forgetting about the hands won't work. We must make a concerted effort to make them do what we want.
Professional public speaker Patricia Fripp believes the first rule of hands is getting them out of the way altogether. In an article titled "Capturing Your Audience," she espouses a program of total restraint: "Try practicing a speech by clasping your hands behind your back to avoid meaningless, repetitive arm and hand gestures. It will he tough at first to concentrate on your talk without using your hands, but it will help stop superficial flailing and gesturing."
While banishing the hands to exile may seem a bit extreme, it is the first step toward understanding just how ostentatious and needless they can be. Like relinquishing any crutch, taking the hands away altogether may feel awkward, but in time this exercise builds a comprehensive awareness of body language and reduces the impulse for the hands to find their traditional, and often distracting, comfort zones.
Yet unless we're doing a speech on handcuffs or Houdini, there's no public speaking venue that will allow us to keep our hands behind our back. Eventually, they will have to be allowed to fall where they may, which can he a speaker's most difficult balancing act.
Steven Smith is a professional speaker, consultant and veteran Toastmaster who hesitates to offer tips for the hands alone - again, they are merely part of the overall package - but he readily admits most people have a problem with them. He's a firm believer in the notion that the hands have their time and place in a speech. "I compare them to the little red lights on a boom box," he says. "When the volume rises, so do the red lights. When it subsides, the lights go away." In other words, hands should rise and fall commensurate with the message of the speech.
Where should they fall? There's only one answer, according to Smith, and that's straight down. "The hands should fall loosely at the sides," he says. "That's naturally how we speak. But you'd be surprised at the number of public speakers who simply cannot do it."
Smith says because this seemingly natural impulse is so hard to perform on command, it is something that must be constantly and subtly practiced. "I call it water cooler practice," he says. "When you are engaged in everyday conversation, take notice of how your hands fall. You should default to this same natural hand position in front of a crowd."
Yet for all this emphasis on self-policing, there are some who believe the hands should be afforded more freedom. Gary Plaag is a speaking coach in Fairfax County, Virginia, who issues a ready caution to anyone who follows the rules too closely. "Hand gestures are an art, not a science," he says. "What's more, they're uniquely personal. What may be comfortable for one person may not be for another. It's all about knowing what your particular weaknesses are and working on them speech by speech."
Mr. Plaag's method of drawing awareness to the hands is to videotape his speakers and jointly discuss what they see. He is convinced that the value of video goes far beyond spoken evaluation. "If they can see it, they can work on it," he says. Of course, while he emphasizes a tailored, individual approach, he's not above employing a few tricks for itinerant hands. "If their hands are really out of control, I hand them a bowling ball and tell them to try the speech again," he says, propagating the idea that the speaker may be helped along if the hands are otherwise occupied.
So if there is a lesson to be learned from the three noted speakers above, it is that the hands are an indispensable part of any verbal presentation, not just a pair of accessories along for the ride. Therefore, every public speaker must give due consideration to the hands, beginning with a very basic awareness of where they are and where they want to naturally stray. Gaining this awareness may require full restraint, or simply the "bowling ball treatment." In the end, however, the hands should suit not only the speaker but the message as well, complementing – not detracting from - the spoken word.
While acting natural may feel anything but, it is incumbent upon all Toastmasters to explore and conquer the various public speaking gremlins that tend to appear when the timing light starts. The hands are but one t or even two) of the elements composing the total physical package, but depending upon how they perform under pressure, they can mar an otherwise flawless speech.
So put your hands in their place, let them find their comfort zone, and consciously do what so many others can't ... make it look easy.