Did you know that nonverbals like facial expression and hand gestures make up over half of our communication? It’s true. Current statistics say somewhere around 60-80% of our communication is nonverbal. In fact, a recent study in the Netherlands proved that communication accompanied by nonverbals produced faster understanding and response.
But think for a moment about how you prepare for a presentation. What percentage of your practice time is spent on your nonverbal communication? If you are like me, you spend nearly all of your time getting your words just right, and a very small percentage of time, if any, getting your hands just right. That’s right, I said hands. As presenters, we have to learn to “speak” the language of nonverbal communication. The following 3 tips will help you get started.
First, you need to figure out what your hands are doing when you present. Many speakers experience a type of amnesia while presenting. They know they presented, but they aren’t really aware of what they said or what their body was doing. This is pretty typical, especially if you tend to be nervous when you speak. But in order to improve as a presenter, you need to become aware of what you look and sound like to others when you speak.
Start by recording yourself practicing a presentation, and then play it back watching only your hand motions. Turn the sound off to help you focus only on your hands. If you have the ability, watch yourself with the speed increased. This will make your movement patterns more noticeable. Anything that is repetitive can quickly become boring or distracting, so you’ll want to make sure to have variety in the hand motions that you use.
As you watch yourself, ask the following questions. Are my hands moving at all? Does my movement look comfortable and natural? Am I repeating any hand motion too much? Am I using both of my arms/hands? Am I fidgeting in any way? Do I use lots of gestures in one part of the presentation but not in another? Do my hand gestures look inviting to the audience? Is there any motion I make that could come off as too aggressive? Do my hands help the audience understand my message? Once you know what your hands are doing, you can make a plan for improving your nonverbal communication.
Use the R-E-R Method.
The speakers of the most popular TED talks use their hands nearly twice as much as speakers whose TED talks are less popular. That’s not a coincidence. What the speaker says with her hands matters to the audience. Traditionally, communication theorists teach beginning public speakers to use an R-E-R method of hand movement, which stands for ready-execute-return. First, your hands must be ready to gesture when you feel the need to do so. That means they shouldn’t be in your pockets, behind your back, or folded in front of you. Instead, relax them naturally at your sides or keep them at your sides with your arms bent at the elbow.
In order to prevent fidgeting, plan to keep your hands empty for the majority of your presentation. That means no pen or notes in your hands. You can use a slide remote or pick up notes occasionally, but anything that you hold in your hands can become a barrier to free and natural gesturing.
Keeping your hands ready to gesture is the toughest step of all three. But once you’ve mastered readiness, you are always prepared to execute the motion you feel is needed. Finally, return your hands to a natural resting place at your sides until you are ready to gesture again.
Have you ever stopped to think about how you would use your hands during a conversation with a friend? Probably not. Public speaking is essentially elevated conversation, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to your hand motions while speaking. You probably already have good instincts about what to do, but that doesn’t mean that you should simply “wing it.” Just as you prepare and practice what you’ll be saying for a speech, you should also study your natural hand gestures and work to improve them.
You should avoid using gestures that feel awkward or don’t come naturally to you. Why? Humans are incredibly skilled at reading nonverbal communication. A recent study conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman proved that humans can spot a fake smile over 60% of the time, and that number jumps up to 80% if you work in social fields. If your nonverbal communication as a speaker is unnatural, your audience will be quick to recognize it and dismiss it as insincere. So after studying your natural gestures, practice and polish them a bit to enhance your overall presentation.
Now that you understand the importance of hand gestures in communication, start to pay attention to the messages your nonverbal communication is sending every day. And keep these 3 tips about how to use your hands in mind the next time you have a big presentation.
If you want to learn more about yourself as a presenter and improve your skills, check out our online presentation skills course.