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What to do with your hands when you’re preaching

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth]. It’s a question that haunts many public speakers: what to do with your hands while you’re talking or preaching? For some using their hands comes very natural, but for others this really is an area where they need to practice. So let’s have a look at using your hands effectively when preaching.

The most important advice is this: do what comes natural to you. I’m an active person by nature, I can’t sit still and I use a lot of gestures when I talk with someone. That means I do sort of the same when I preach, though I do tone it down for the sake of the audience. My point is that you need to use your hands in a way that’s natural to you.

If you don’t know what’s natural, make a video of yourself doing a practice sermon and watch it back. What patterns do you see in how you use your hands? Are your hands distractive in any way?

If you want to improve your ‘hands technique’ while you preach, here are some do’s and don’ts.

Find a position of rest

While it’s good to make natural gestures (see below) you need a fall-back position, a position of rest. One position that often works very well is to loosely lay one hand in the other and keep them above your waist. You don’t draw attention to unwanted areas of your body, you can easily let go to make gestures and naturally return to this position.

This is my standard position of rest and it works very well for me. If you’re unsure about this, practice a position of rest that works for you so you can fall back to this ‘position’ whenever you’re feeling self-conscious about your hands.

Make gestures

A good way to use your hands is to make suitable gestures while you’re talking. Practice these in front of a mirror if this doesn’t come natural to you, to make sure they’re suitable, look natural and aren’t too much. You don’t have to gesticulate everything you say or it becomes too distractive. Your gestures are supposed to support your words and aren’t the main attraction so to speak.

Something to remember here is that if you are up on stage, you may need to make your gestures a bit bigger than usual in order to make them effective and purposeful. Using small gestures here won’t come across ‘cause people in the back won’t be able to see what you’re doing.

Lay your hands down

If you’re using a lectern of some kind, you can lay down your hands on it for a while when you speak. Especially when you’re a bit nervous, this is a good pose  that not only communicates rest, but also gives you rest because you don’t have to think about your hands for a while. Don’t spend 30 minutes like this though to avoid associations with Madam Tussaud’s…No seriously, if you stand like this for the entire duration of the sermon it’s a bit too inactive.

Reach towards your audience

A good gesture to make is reaching towards your audience when you’re preaching, as if literally reaching out to them. It lessens the felt distance between you and your audience. Again, this has to come natural because if it’s too choreographed it will lose all impact.

Don’t put your hands in your pocket(s)

Putting your hands in your pockets comes across as either very nervous, indifferent or aloof. Putting one hand in a pocket as some men are prone to do, can be easily interpreted as arrogance and it also often looks studied and unnatural.

Some speakers get away with it, because this stance actually comes natural to them, but I have to say they are a minority. In general, it’s better to not put your hands in your pockets.

Whenever I see someone fold their hands behind their back while they preach, I always have to think of Jeremy Irons in ‘Die Hard with a vengeance’ who used that position so masterfully to radiate military power and arrogance…

Don’t fold your hands behind your back

This is often called the policeman or general-position. It radiates power, but also superiority and distance. That’s often not something you want to communicate when you’re preaching.

Don’t play with anything

Don’t hold a pen or a remote in your hands if you know you’re tempted to play with it. It’s very distracting for your audience and it shows nervousness and lack of focus.

Don’t fold your arms

Again, it creates distance and makes you seem aloof. The same goes for clasping your hands in front of you (and that’s often extra awkward because many people do this holding their hands before their pelvic area…not an area you want to draw attention to!)

Don’t make repetitive gestures

Be very careful of repeating the same gesture over and over. People will pick up on this and may start to focus more on you than on what you’re saying.

Don’t suppress natural gestures

If you’re a natural gesturer (is that a good word?) like me, don’t force yourself into not making gestures. It’s gonna look really unnatural and stupid. Being yourself is really key here so if you normally use your hands a lot when you have a conversation, it’s okay to do the same when you’re preaching.

What do you do with your hands when you preach? What has and hasn’t worked for you in this area so far?

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0 thoughts on “What to do with your hands when you’re preaching

  1. Great ideas to help youth leaders connect as they speak. Thanks!

  2. […] You don’t need to keep walking back and forth (that’s also known as pacing and actually isn’t that attractive at all), but if you’re preaching without a fixed pulpit, some amount of moving would be good. Standing still all the time shows a very passive presence and doesn’t give your audience any reason to look at you. Especially with a bigger stage, a bit of (slow) walking makes you look more active, as do natural hand gestures when you speak. […]

  3. […] Nerves often show in trembling hands or restless movements. If you feel or see yourself doing that, find your position of rest. This is a basic position you need to practice beforehand in which you can relax in being relatively still, without looking like a corpse. It can be standing behind a lectern with two hands on the lectern, it can be standing still with your hands loosely folded into each other above your waist, it can be any position you feel comfortable in that communicates well to your audience (for more about this, see the post on What to do with your hands when you’re preaching). […]

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