When you’re nervous, your body language can give you away—hand-wringing, arm-crossing, and prop-fiddling are all signs that you’re not super confident.
But the solution isn’t to stand stoic and still, particularly when you want to make a good impression or get your way. I’ve learned that the best strategy is to put your nervous energy to use. And the science agrees: Using your hands when speaking is not only a better way to communicate, but it also helps you soak up knowledge faster.
I can honestly say that the following tips have enabled me to get through many an awkward conversation or challenging presentation. So, whether you’re pitching a new idea, presenting your latest project, or speaking up in a meeting, don’t forget to remember the following.
1. Use Your Hands to Help the Audience Visualize What You’re Saying
Any audience, whether made up of one person or 100, will become engaged when they can see what you’re trying to say. The good news? You don’t need to rely on aids like presentations or handouts. Although these things can sometimes serve a purpose, being able to talk with your hands is what’ll really make you look good.
The next time you want to describe how two things relate, create the connection in your audience’s mind using carefully-considered gestures to work with your words.
For example, say you want to describe the relationship between the marketing budget and number of visitors to the company’s website to convince your co-workers the team needs additional resources. If you motion to the left for the marketing budget, and to the right for visitor count, that’s where each of those numbers “live” for the people listening to you. They’ll probably be able to grasp your point better than if you’d just sat still and stared straight ahead.
2. Consider the Direction of Your Gestures
The direction of your gestures reveals your focus and intent, two things that people will always take note of when speaking with you. Use this attention to detail to your advantage and create associations; you can explain an overwhelming workload by pointing to the ceiling, or indicate obstacles by moving your hands away from each other emphatically.
Something as simple as the direction you position your palms can have a big impact on the person you’re speaking with. Think about it: The universal motion for “stop” is to put your hand up, palm outwards, indicating you’re not open to receiving feedback or collaborating (typically a professional no-no).
That’s why a slight rotation of your palm can completely change the nature of a gesture and the impact of what you’re saying. The experts back me up. In this TEDx Talk from Honorary Professor of Psychology at ULIM International University, Allan Pease, he says, “There are more connections between your brain and the palm of your hand than any other body part.”
Learning that convinced me that palm positioning could help me sail a little more easily through any discussion (even if I was asking my boss for a deadline extension).
3. Keep Moderation in Mind
Balance is key for every speaking situation, and if your goal is to appear confident with your body language, you definitely want to strike the right note. One thing that works for me—and that anyone can do—is to stay within the lines of my physical self. I don’t raise my hands above my head or stretch my arms way out in front of me. This helps me feel in control and also makes the person (or people) I’m talking to feel at ease.
To look natural, I also remind myself to relax my shoulders away from my neck and to let my arms hang slightly away from my torso. If you do your best to appear comfortable when you talk, it can make all the difference in preventing your body language from overpowering your words—especially helpful when it comes time to ask for that promotion that you’re confident you deserve.
Use “the steeple.” You’ve seen this before, it’s a key hand gesture noted by psychologists that keeps your hands centered and makes you look confident and grounded.
But, a word of caution: It can sometimes come off too strong, almost arrogant. When you want to convey openness, hold your hands at waist height or higher and flip the steeple upside down, so your fingertips are pointing downwards.
This inverted steeple is a good standby to assume when you’re giving or receiving feedback because it signals that you’re both open to hear what the other person has to say and also prepared to absorb any constructive criticism headed your way.
Words are powerful, but without gestures they’re just that: words. Never underestimate how important your body language is when you want to appear confident and composed.
After all, learning how it works is the key to making sure you’re persuasive, and above all, unforgettable.
Photo of man gesturing courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.