Imagine this scenario: You are up on stage, being introduced, it’s your time, your moment to shine. And in a fleeting moment of panic, you realize, now what do I do with my hands as I stand here listening to this amazing introduction about me? 

All eyes are on you! Now, what?

Best to have this one figured out in advance, as the adrenaline rushes you will find that your body wants to do all sorts of strange things up there on stage. Fight or flight begins to kick in, as you smile and really tell yourself to project poise and self-confidence. Then the smile begins to fade as you realized you don’t know what to do with those darn hands….

The five most common things we all want to do with our hands in this situation are all a BIG No-No. The following gestures do not display self-confidence; in fact, they actually lower your image in the eyes to the listener, no matter how big your smile—

Fig-leaf hands.  When you stand with one hand on top of the other, covering the groin region, you look smaller, you know, the pose, we’ve all done it or seen it. The message your body is saying, I’m harmless,” I’m shy‚” or I’m afraid.”  No matter how big the smile, the fig-leaf pose still says—“I’m trying to be small.”

Hands or thumbs in pockets. Thumbs hanging off the pockets, or hands deep in the pockets usually send a message of diminished self-confidence, something like, “ Geez, I hope you like me.”  Worse yet, hands in pockets juggling change is as good as saying, “I’m nervous and I hope you like me.” It can also send a message of exaggerated self-importance such as “I know I’m pretty neat,” or “I’m really bored.”

Pockets and waistbands are fraught with meaning. Thumbs tucked in the waistband usually say, “I’m staking my territory,” which is a gesture of power, not influence. Best to avoid pockets and waistbands.

Hands clasped behind your back. Depending on the context, this gesture, similar to the fig-leaf, can make you look smaller, as if to say, “I hope you like me.”  If having your hands clasped behind your back is part of a bigger pattern, often referred to as the royal strut (erect posture, slow gait, head held high), your body is saying, “You better fear me.”  The royal strut conveys superiority, extreme self-confidence, and sends a message of, “I know I have power.”  Neither of these is advised in business situations.

Arms crossed over the chest. This stance is probably the most misinterpreted gesture. To some people, it says, “I’m annoyed.” Others think it says, I’m not open to discussion. I stand firm on what I said.”  Some people automatically cross their arms when they are listening. Some cross their arms when they are cold. Maybe they are simply trying to hide a spot on their shirt or blouse. This gesture is comfortable and easy, and difficult to overcome, try your best to avoid it simply because it’s loaded with so many misunderstandings and meanings of closed-off or discomfort.

Hands on hips. Okay, sure, this gesture makes you look bigger‚ because you‚ are taking up more space. It also reverts everyone to adolescents as the viewer flashes-back to the “schoolyard bully”.  Even if you were lucky enough to escape the bully flashback, it definitely carries a connotation of annoyance and judgment. It often sends the message “I’m ready for a fight.” Think gunfight at the OK Corral.

Eliminate these five gestures from your repertoire and replace them with gestures of expectation and influence that show you have confidence in yourself and others.

So what to do with these old hands?

You always want to display self-confidence, no matter how you are feeling inside. Don’t let them see you sweat. If you are not confident, your audience or team most likely won’t be confident either. And certainly won’t follow you as the leader.  So in an effort to not let them see you sweat, fake it until you make it by maintaining one of the following three positive gestures of expectation and comfortable, low, “belly” breathing.

The three positions of your forearms that say, “I am confident, we all know what we are doing, we are capable and I expect good things,” are:

Your forearms waist-high in front of your body, wrists at the same height as the elbows so that the forearms are parallel to the ground. Hands can be gently clasped together or in a downward steeple gesture where fingertips touch, (while it may be tempting to do, avoid playing with rings or bracelets).
Your arms straight down by your sides. This one is physically the most natural, yet often the most uncomfortable to do. I often hear, “It feels like I’m standing at attention.” It won’t look that way unless you lock your knees. So, loosen up the stance a bit and try the arms down by your sides.
The combination of one forearm waist-high in front of your body, with the wrist at the same height as the elbow and the other arm down to your side—think weatherperson pose—this is an excellent stance of confidence.

To display self-confidence at all times, pay attention to what you do with those darn hands. Other nonverbal that display self-confidence are good posture. Stand tall. No slouching, not only do you look defeated when slouching, you can’t breathe well. Comfortable, natural breathing is a key nonverbal that shows we are confident with who we are. Breathe slowly and deeply. Move with assurance. Watch for any fidgets or nervous gestures, such as twirling rings or playing with your clothes…. Smile, put those hands in one of the three self-confident positions, make good eye contact and shine in your moment.

Learn more about positive gestures of expectation and influence in Sharon Sayler’s latest book What Your Body Says (and how to master the message).

Excerpts from What Your Body Says (and how to master the message)

“When it comes to inspiring and influencing others, we can say all the right words, but if our nonverbal postures send a different message, that is what others will understand and take away.”

“We often revert to our innate baseline behaviors when we’re under stress, which compromises our ability to communicate effectively. When we are tense, our nonverbals can send confusing signals. That’s when we are more likely to misunderstand other people and lapse into unhelpful patterns of behavior. It often helps to take a break to relax and breathe when managing our own baseline behaviors during stressful periods. It is a highly skilled leader who can maintain learned nonverbal baseline behaviors that reflect self-confidence, even under strained situations.”

Sharon Sayler, MBA, is a Communications Success Strategist who trains professionals on how to become stronger, more influential communicators and leaders. She teaches people how to communicate with confidence and clarity by matching their body language to what their mouth is saying.

Sharon’s new book What Your Body Says (and how to master the message) teaches business leaders and communicators how to make their body match what their mouth is saying.