Last week I coached a client based on a video of him in a press conference. I told him that a gesture he used, with his palm down and fingers outspread, showed a lot of confidence and authority. That was my impression, but, because I like to supplement my own experience with what the experts say, I did some more research on how hands can affect how confident you appear to others.
Coincidentally, I ran a class last week in which someone took some photos of me speaking to the group, and when I went back and viewed those, armed with my formal knowledge, I found a few that will apply to this article.
My favorite expert is Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and body language expert who has written What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, and Louder Than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence. A lot of what you will read here is taken from his books, and the rest from my own experience and reading through the years.
Navarro tells us that “…we have evolved to keep a close eye on the highly mobile hands.” This makes tremendous sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancestors survived by developing the ability to quickly size up whether another person is a threat, and their hands are their primary weapons. So, when we see and hear a speaker, we unconsciously and rapidly reach conclusions about their potential power, and hence their confidence.
We are all have a pretty good unconscious competence at reading others, but the fact that the knowledge is unconscious means that speakers may not know that they are betraying a lack of confidence through their hands. Once you have a conscious understanding, you can practice and develop your own confident hand gestures.
Hand-steepling is probably the most powerful:
Women who use hand-steepling tend to keep their hands lower. In general, the higher the hands, the more confident you appear.
A version of steepling is the “basketball”, where you hold your hands as if you’re holding an invisible basketball: (although I think Newt is holding a beach ball in this picture)
Holding your hands open with palms down indicates that you know what you’re talking about:
Thumb displays also indicate confidence:
Incidentally, keeping your hands in your pockets makes you seem unsure of yourself, unless your thumbs show:
Hands can also show a lack of confidence
Wringing hands or rubbing palms together:
The infamous and ubiquitous fig leaf:
Nervous touching of yourself, especially covering your neck:
You need to practice
If you want to work on having more confident hands, the first step is to videotape yourself so that you can become aware of your habits. Next, if you want to start using gestures that are new to you, it’s absolutely critical to practice them so that they become second nature. Natural gestures actually begin before the words come out, so that if you try to consciously use any of these gestures, they are going to come out wrong. Your listeners won’t know exactly why, but they will notice that you look awkward for some reason.