Samantha was nervous as she looked out at the audience. She thanked the organizer of the symposium and began her talk. Nothing in her delivery or sound of her voice gave away the fact that she was not only uncomfortable being on stage but was uncertain about how her paper would be received. She had carefully practiced her talk and so was able to articulate her points with a steady voice and only minor stumbles. A few minutes into her talk, however, she began wringing her hands. She did this unconsciously in between other nervous hand gestures: Wring, wring….wave at screen….wring, wring….push back hair…wring, wring….straighten blouse….wring, wring…. The audience for the most part did not "see" the hand-wringing and other fidgety gestures but sensed that Samantha was nervous and uncertain. A few people squirmed in their seats and looked at their watches, hoping it would soon be over.
I attended a conference a week ago and saw all the usual mistakes that presenters make, some of which I've talked about before here, here, and here. One issue that I've not addressed is what do you do with your hands while presenting? As my fictional example above indicates, your hand gestures can totally undermine an otherwise good speech and make the audience wish they had gone to that other talk in a competing session. I've heard people suggest clasping your hands or the podium to avoid fidgeting (the myth), but that prevents natural hand gestures, which can help you appear calm and confident.
Hand-wringing is a gesture that people engage in because it is a self-soothing behavior. Other people rock in place or jingle the change in their pockets (although I've not seen this one in years). If you tend to be a hand-wringer, then one easy solution is to hold something (the remote, for example) in one hand, which makes it more difficult to rub your hands together. However, this won't work if you fidget with whatever you are holding—another bad habit to avoid.
I know it's difficult to think about your hands and what you are doing with them while giving a talk, but paying attention to how and when you gesture can pay off. Most experts advise varying your gestures and then letting your arms fall to your sides (avoid smacking them, however). Here are a few more dos and don'ts:
1. Gesture with both hands, together and alternately, in a natural rhythm.
2. Vary how "broad" your gestures are, but don't overdo the arm-waving.
3. Avoid fidgeting with pens, laser-pointers, paper, phones, the remote, or other objects.
4. Don't touch your face, hair, or other body parts (!).
5. Don't cross your arms over your chest, clasp your hands in a "fig-leaf" posture, or keep your hands in your pockets.
6. Don't flap your hands unnecessarily; remain aware of why you are gesturing.
7. Practice gesturing in front of a mirror, particularly how it looks and feels to drop your hands at the end of a gesture.
Finally, here's a good video that shows how to manage your gestures when speaking: