Have you ever been speaking in front of an audience or even just standing somewhere and talking with someone and all of a sudden felt unbelievably conscious of your hands? It's bizarre, isn't it? It seems like the more unfamiliar or nervous we are in a particular situation, the more suddenly aware we are of these two giant limbs that are attached to our body day and night. And man, do they feel weird.
The question is, what do we do with them to make them look natural? Well, here's a good rule of thumb. And I warn you, it is completely contradictory to everything that seems logical. Which ironically, is exactly why it works. Here it is.
The more awkward your arms feel the more natural they look.
Stand up and raise your arms up above your head - DO IT. Now let them fall down naturally right to your side - STOP. Hold it right there - that pose. It feels wrong. It feels awkward and unnatural. You are extremely aware of your arms just sitting there doing absolutely nothing. And THAT contrary to what your brain tells you, is the most natural looking way to stand you will ever see.
Want further proof? Alright.
Stand up and cross your arms. Feels pretty natural right? Well you probably already know that standing with your arms closed is one of the most closed and potentially hostile stances you can take. Yet we're compelled to stand this way because it just feels so... normal.
Look at the image I chose to use for this post with three people standing. Who in it looks the most natural? Who looks the most unnatural? The man and the woman on the sides look pretty natural standing there with their arms by their sides. The woman in the middle doesn't seem 'closed' as the arms might suggest, however she does look like the only one posing and seems likely to be the most unapproachable of the three.
Finally, have you ever paid attention to what a professional speaker does with their arms when they ask the audience if there are any questions and/or when they receive a round of applause? Chances are probably not, because we only tend to remember things when they are off - not when they work. You'll always notice hearing the wrong note played in a song, but when the right notes are played the music just flows smoothly.
A professional speaker will extend their arms and bend them slightly towards the audience in both of these situations to demonstrate that they are open to receiving questions and/or applause. And it works! When a speaker is standing like this, a question always comes along and we feel more obliged to enthusiastically applaud. Yet, try actually standing this way. You think keeping your arms to your side feels weird? That's nothing compared to the feeling of standing with your arms outstretched in this fashion.
It's strange, uncomfortable and beyond all logical understanding. Yet it absolutely, truly, one-hundred percent works.