One of the most frequently-asked questions I receive is about body language. Specifically, “What do I do with my hands while I’m speaking?”

There are two types of body language: unintentional and intentional. 

Unintentional body language is what we do without thinking: we play with our glasses, tie, or hair. We hold a pen in our hand and wave it around, or we tightly clasp our hands together and massage them while speaking. We pace back and forth. We do these things without realizing them, often as a way to release nervousness. Unfortunately, they demonstrate our nervousness to our audience, they distract people from our speech, and they undermine our authority.

Intentional body language, on the other hand, is what we do to add meaning to our words. If we are talking about distance or size, we can hold our hands apart to demonstrate. We can use our fingers to count when we talk about “3″ different options or use our hand to divide the air in front of us into 3 sections. If we are speaking at a lectern, we can gently rest our hands on the sides of the lectern until we need to reinforce our words. If we are speaking without a lectern, we can simply keep our hands at our sides or gently bend our elbows and keep our arms up around our torso, relaxed until we need to make a point. I also suggest that people walk a few feet during their transition phrases and then stop to make a point.

So how do you stop the unintentional body language and make every movement intentional?

1) Realize what you are doing: Watch or record a video of your speech and play it back without sound. Focus specifically on your body language, asking yourself if it is effective or distracting. What seems to work and what doesn’t?

2) Be intentional: Print out your speech text and analyze it. Ask yourself, “Where can I add body language?” Add notes to your speech so that you know exactly where and how you’d like to use your hands or body. Look for contrasts where you can show one hand and then the other. Look for numbers you can count out. Look for transitions where you can move around the room, and look for main points where you can plant your feet, spread your hands out, and emphasize your message.

3) Practice body language: Practice your speech in front of a mirror, focusing on your body language and speaking slowly while you try out different movements. Ask yourself, “If I were an actor, what types of movements would I make?” Record a short video of your practice session and play it back – those movements which felt awkward might actually look quite normal to your audience. If it still looks awkward after watching the video, try another type of movement.

4) Go onstage and let it be “natural”: Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter to US President Ronald Reagan, used to say that, “Reagan was the most natural speaker in politics. But he was a natural because he practiced so hard.” Once you’ve gone through the process of practicing your speech with intentional, purposeful body language, get up on stage and focus on your message, and let your “normal” body language come out.

Try out these techniques, and you’ll be a natural!