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Hands up! Who doesn’t know what to do with their arms while presenting?

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It’s one of those weird biological anomalies.

When you stand up to speak in front of an audience, your arms seem to grow an additional few inches. You suddenly feel as if you have to deal with these two outsized appendages.

So we find ways of hiding them. We stuff them in our pockets, clasp them behind our back, or fold them across our chest. Worse still, we wring them, or grip the nearest podium or chair-back with white knuckles. Most disturbingly, some of us hold them together in apparent protection of our nether regions! Not only does this look strange, but it also instantly conveys an impression that we are very unsure of ourselves.

So while hands and arms seem to take on a mind of their own when we are faced with the spectre of presenting, Peter Nelson, who is the programme director of the Henley Business School’s Influence and Impact programme, insists that there is a safe way to start your delivery. And he believes that nature will then take over and allow you to be less self-conscious.

"The problem with hiding your hands is that it’s a very defensive manoeuvre. Invariably, our natural inclination to emphasise what we’re saying means that subtle movements are transferred from our arms to our chin or shoulders. And even people who can keep their hands visible fall prey to fidgeting with their hair or jewellery. It’s very distracting for the audience and sends out all the wrong signals."

<>So what is the ideal stance?

"I’d advise you to adopt a starting stance with your hands loosely together, palm-to-palm, held at waist height,’ says Peter, ‘so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees."

Peter goes on to explain: "By starting in this position, you will be relaxed and comfortable, and able to focus on what you’re saying. You shouldn’t feel inhibited about then using your arms and hands to reinforce certain points, after which you can return to this position. The best speakers use their hands and arms a lot, in a relaxed and natural way.

"When you watch television presenters, or TED speakers, you can see that they will universally adopt this default starting position. David Attenborough is a master of it. So study what they do, or – better still – come and do the programme, and get some handy tips!"

Published 24th September 2018
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