Public Speaking and Palm-Reading: What Are Your Hands Saying?

This week, I find myself in a fairly rare position of disagreeing with a blog post by a good friend and colleague, Brad Phillips

Earlier this week, when discussing body language, Brad took the position that the “steepled” position for hands while speaking– where fingertips touch – is a body language faux pas, and can send signals of defensiveness and/or arrogance.  Brad regularly produces fantastic content and has very perceptive observations on interacting with the media.

One position for hands that he recommended instead was to “nest” hands, one inside the other, which allows for free movement and the ability to gesture.

My (contrarian) position: utilizing either “the steeple” or “the nest” for your hands while speaking may work very well;   or you may appear guarded. 

The rationale: Every person is an individual, and what works for one person may, or may not, work for another. 

I am an ardent believer that just as no two individuals are alike, no two speaking styles are alike; one body language principle may work for 95% of the population, but it may not work for you!

Steepled hands, made famous by a number of famous public figures (President Clinton) can evoke feelings of arrogance from the audience; at the same time they may evoke feelings of thoughtfulness and reflection – if holding hands in the steepled position is a natural fit for the speaker.

Nested hands can certainly evoke a relaxed response from both the presenter and the audience.  I tested this with a few trainees this week – one thing I noticed is that when a speaker is in a state of heightened anxiety or nervousness, nested hands can lead to locked arms that look like an awkward “ball and socket” joint. 

This tends to not only make the presenter appear more anxious, it actually can make the presenter more anxious, as the nervous energy has no outlet to escape – you have essentially created a nonstop loop with no escape route.

The takeaway: While I do not believe there is one universally applicable set of rules for effective body language, I do believe that there are improvements every presenter can make in terms of utilizing body language effectively. 

How do you find out what works for you? 

The vast majority would have a hard time mastering any athletic endeavor without practice and training. Presenting, speaking or appearing before the media isn’t any different.

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3 Responses to “Public Speaking and Palm-Reading: What Are Your Hands Saying?”


  1. Matt, I have to say I agree with you. There’s no one size fits all for body language while speaking. I’ll be interested to see how that works when we do our training sessions.

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