Busy Hands – Nonverbals in Business Speech

She sat a few chairs down from me at a meeting. We were asked to introduce ourselves and talk about our business for about one-minute. It was not what she said, but her body language that caught my attention.

She is a dentist with a family practice seeking referrals through a local chapter meeting of BNI International.  She sat there with her arms tightly crossed and her head bowed down like a student not wanting the teacher to call on her. A number of us had already given our one-minute elevator talk and her turn was coming.

As she stood, her arms remained crossed. She was soft spoken but with no real projection. One hand rose towards her mouth and remained there for the 60-seconds she spoke. She spent the entire time looking at a spot on the floor in the middle of the room and not at her audience. After she sat, her stiffness remained with her hand not moving from its assigned position.

You have to ask why she was hiding her mouth. She is a dentist; she should be proud of her own teeth and willing to show then off. What was this saying about her dental practice? If she was not showing confidence in her own dental work, why should we trust her in her dental practice?

Arms crossed show the audience that she was closed off. The hand in front of the mouth indicates that she may have something to hide. The lack of projection begets a lack of confidence not only in her ability to speak to the group of 20.

The non-verbals of a presentation are as important as the words chosen. The non-verbals verify or negate what is being said. Many professional speakers will practice their nonverbals along with the verbals of a speech to make sure they are sending the right message.

There are a few nonverbals you cannot control, like your eye’s pupils dilating or narrowing, eyebrows raising and lowering. For most, even a simple smile cannot be faked. However, your arms and hands, and your general posture can be controlled.

Many people “talk” with their hands. The expressions verify or illustrate what is being said. Pointing or waving of the hand to acknowledge someone or something. The pounding of the fist to emphasize an important point. (Khrushchev used his shoe at the United Nations.) The shaking of the head to indicate the negative and the nod for the positive. 

Here are some tricks of the trade that may help you avoid hiding your face.

The Linus Blanket – I have talked about this before. The Peanuts character Linus is never seen in the funny paper panels without his trustworthy blue blanket. You may consider bringing a cup of coffee or glass of water with you, and hold on to it during a short presentation. Hold a pen or pencil (beware of clicking the pen during the speech). For a longer presentation, have the drink or pencil sitting on the lectern or table for you to hold in case you feel your hands get out of control.

The Table Touch – I watched a speaker do this a few weeks ago and it worked very well. During his presentation he made sure one hand was always on the lectern. That seemed to help control the movements of this free hand.

Do not hold the lectern or table with a death grip. Relax your hands by squeezing tightly then letting loose. As long as you have contact, your hands are under control.

Video Tape Your Presentation – Watch the presentation as if you are a speech instructor looking for the nonverbal distractors. Are your hand expressive or are they distracting? Seeing is believing and knowing your hands are not expressing or emphasizing what you are saying is a key to improving the nonverbals.

Practice Your Speech with Gestures – Watch a speech by Hitler. One thing you will notice is the control he had over his hands. He would practice his nonverbals as he wrote and practiced his speeches.

Beware of becoming too mechanical with your movements. Your actions should be natural and emphasizing the content, not an afterthought.

Stand Tall – It may sound funny but standing tall also helps control your hands during a presentation. Take a deep breath and roll your shoulders back and let them fall into a natural position. Slouching tends to push the arms and hand forward, and in full view of your audience. This is also a method of relaxing just before you give your presentation.

Do Not Stand at Parade-Rest – Clasping your hands behind you back puts you in an unnatural position to speak. It extends your chest and makes it hard to take the deep breaths you need to speak. In the same vein, do not stand at ramrod attention either.

Your hands are important part of your presentation. Not to be over or misused but to emphasize what you are saying. Use them wisely and your presentation will be much improved.

David is an award winning freelance editor, copywriter and speaker. InkandVoice Communication provides Business and Political Communication Editing, Copywriting, Consulting and Coaching. If you have any questions or would like a free consultation, please contact us at Info@InkandVoice.com.

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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