Help! What do I do with my arms?

Your gestures are an extension of your mouth - don't let them have hiccups

Help! What do I do with my arms?

I couldn't not take a look at Liz Truss giving her speech on the economy yesterday. You've got to admire the woman, haven't you? If I were her, then a year on from crashing sterling, blowing out borrowing costs and totally losing market cred, I'd probably still be hiding in my bedroom. But not our Liz. There she is telling us that there was nothing wrong with her economic plan, in fact she still believes it's fabulous!, she was just too hasty implementing it. Do check out the video for a lesson in front. 

But seeing her, especially doing her post speech Q&A, transported me back to August / September '22, and a question that I couldn't stop wrestling with: What is Liz Truss doing with her arms?!

Whatever she was doing, it made her look like a puppet. She couldn’t move her left arm without her right arm matching the movement. And the gestures were always too big and kept growing outwards until she finished her spiel. 

Of course, some other muppet had told her that large, expansive gestures project confidence. And what should a mover and shaker project? This isn’t necessarily bad advice but room-size and medium need to be considered. Her Pinocchio-esque gestures probably look fine to the journalist sitting in back row and a news conference, but to the woman sitting on her sofa watching a close-up of Liz (that’s me), they look odd and robotic.

Knowing what to do with arms is something that clients always want to discuss. Let's face it, we’re never as aware of having arms as we are when we’re presenting. Suddenly knowing what to do with these long objects that dangle at the side of our torso is a problem. Here are my do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t – get rid of the ‘arm problem’ by putting your hands in your pockets; locking your hands behind your back; holding your hands in front of your privates or making the appalling ‘finger-tip pyramid’ that Tony Blair was so fond of.
  • Do – watch the gestures of speakers you like. See how they use their hands and arms to add emphasis to the points they’re making. Try to do similar when you’re speaking.
  • Don’t – choreograph gestures. Public speaking isn’t dance. It has to appear less self-conscious. When you execute a movement you’ve prepared, it always looks clunky.
  • Do – be aware of room-size. If you’re addressing a large lecture theatre, your gestures need to be Trussian but if you’re speaking to 10 people or fewer, then keep them modest.
  • Don’t – cross your arms. ‘But Emma, I do it because it’s comfortable or when I’m cold.’ That may well be. And with energy prices this winter, it probably will be. But the problem is that any crossing of the arms in front of the body is seen as defensive or fearful, usually at an unconscious level, by viewers. So make a conscious effort to stop crossing your arms. 

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“I had a conference speech to give to academics, which aren't my typical bag, so I was really nervous about it and I was being too safe. Emma gave me the direction I needed. But what I valued most were the amazing tips she gave me along with some wonderful ideas, especially for my opening. My presentation was excellently received and I felt great giving it.”

Louisa George, Manchester

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