42

Someone I know has given a presentation at a American University. He supposedly had his hand in his pocket while giving the presentation. A foreign student attacked him for this. The person supposedly said "how would you like it if I gave a presentation with my hand in my pocket." At the end of the presentation, more people started ridiculing him

I am not sure if he was attacked for the content of the presentation, because unfortunately, I have heard this through the grapevine.

What is the proper way to give a presentation? Did the students act appropriately?

  • 2
    My teachers used to ask: "Where do you want to travel to, because you already packed your hands?" – rexkogitans Sep 29 '19 at 12:43
  • 68
    What is wrong with people? We should care about the content and clarity of the presentation, not the number of visible hands. – Carl Christian Sep 29 '19 at 21:22
  • 6
    Both behaviours were rude and bizarre. What is exactly the reason you are asking this question? I would certainly notice such a speaker, but I would be equally if not more surprised by a public comment on place, not to say a verbal attack – Alchimista Sep 30 '19 at 9:36
  • 22
    Aside from anything else, the answer to "how would you like it if I did the thing you are currently doing?" quite frequently is, "yeah, I think it's completely fine otherwise I wouldn't be doing it". Rhetorical questions only really work if you both agree on the answer. – Steve Jessop Sep 30 '19 at 14:26
  • 6
    Well, my guess is that the student believed and/or had been taught that it's extremely disrespectful to put your hand(s) in your pockets while speaking to someone, and so they thought they were berating the speaker for something the speaker already knows was wrong. Hopefully that student learned something about cultural relativity, or at least that good manners are not just "common sense". But I do agree with others the speaker probably could find something more productive to do with that hand, and with less potential to distract the audience. So hopefully they learned something too. – Steve Jessop Sep 30 '19 at 14:57

10 Answers 10

65

If you want a short and binary answer, it is likely yes — keeping a hand in a pocket during the presentation is not the best habit, because:

  1. You lose yourself a chance to use that hand for communicating with the audience via gestures.
  2. Your body language and posture is more likely to be perceived as you can't be bothered with what you are doing.

Having said that, there may be examples of excellent use of almost anything which is normally not recommended in a presentation, if you plan for it and do it consciously. For example, if you ask your students the famous Bilbo's question: "What have I got in my pocket?" — and put your hand in your pocket, your gesture is playing nicely with your explicit voice communication to create an interesting and intriguing setting.

A binary answer to your second question is likely no — students acted inappropriately by interrupting the presenter and commenting on the presentation style, rather than topic of the presentation. Unless, of course, the whole aim of the exercise was to receive comments about the presentation skills and strategies. From your question, we cannot tell.

  • 6
    From a students perspective, I might add that a hand in your pocket is only one aspect in a range of behaviors that make a lecture look "not bothered". For some lectures or "presenters", a hand in the pocket could be equivalent to fiddling with the pointer, or any other habit some do when thinking hard. – Daniel Sep 29 '19 at 13:52
  • 1
    Note that the interrupter was a foreign student but ethnicity not identified. Hand in pocket means different things in different cultures or different circumstances. A friend of mine was scolded in Russia for being so “rude” as to have his hand in pocket while standing in the back of a church. – WGroleau Sep 29 '19 at 14:39
  • 37
    I see Dmitry is in the UK, and I just want to back up that yes, in the US, a hand in the pocket is not a good look. It's not offensive, and I can't imagine an American getting as upset at it. But I would certainly notice, and if we were providing feedback on the presentation, I would mention it. I find the audience's reaction bizarre, and wonder if it's grown in the retelling. – Azor Ahai Sep 29 '19 at 15:38
  • 10
    US perspective here, but I've never heard of hand in your pocket as a sign of "can't be bothered;" it's more of a sign of being socially awkward and/or submissive. I think the students "attacking" the presenter for this demonstrates the power upset reflects the submissive part. I second @AzorAhai 's comment about the audience's reaction being bizarre... – Mars Sep 30 '19 at 2:29
  • 7
    @AzorAhai I completely second your thinking. But, indeed, in the UK, hand in pocket is a mannerism of the "upper classes"; so, under a stretch of imagination it can be considered as dismissive. Frankly, so can posh speech. Nonetheless, somebody clearly has too much time on their hands. Personally I think the heckler should have been put in place. – Captain Emacs Sep 30 '19 at 7:58
15

Hand in pocket can mean a number of disparate things, depending:

  1. I am a cool person;
  2. I do not care/I am better than you;
  3. I do not know where to put my hand and am embarrassed letting it hang around (check out Merkel's famous Hand Triangle as an alternative strategy).

Depending on presenter type and assuming it's not 2., it is perfectly fine to put the hand into the pocket. I have never seen anything berated for this, and in my opinion the foreign student was totally out of line. I thus assume the presenter belongs to group 3, because if they were 1, i.e. the cool guy, they would have found the words to put the heckler in their spot; and if 2, being heckled would not have bothered them in the least (I assume via the question that they were bothered).

Maybe it's a cultural thing, but the heckler was the foreign person and thus should have been doubly careful to berate someone on unfamiliar turf.

That being said, hand in pocket may come across as haughty or snobbish, and is thus not usually recommended in presentations, unless one is really sure that it sends the right relaxed and comfortable attitude (aiming to induce similar relaxed attitude in the listeners).

  • 4
    There's also 4. "I've injured my hand/arm/shoulder and rest it this way - and that is none of your [audience] business." and 5. "I'm freezing cold and try to keep at least one hand warm" (though in that case moving around would probably help more) – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 1 '19 at 8:31
  • In regards to #3, I find putting one's hand behind one's back can work. – Pharap Oct 1 '19 at 10:42
  • 1
    No 3 would be most often associated with shyness, or stage fright, common problems in presentations. Heckling on the other hand is only associated with self-important bullies, and is never appropriate in an academic context. – user104070 Oct 1 '19 at 17:02
  • I have to respectfully disagree in part. With some narrow exceptions, I think having your hands in your pockets during a presentations comes across rather badly and would strongly advise people giving presentations against doing it. With that said, I also cannot fathom calling someone out on it publicly unless there was an actual solicitation for public feedback on style. – TimothyAWiseman Oct 1 '19 at 22:45
  • @TimothyAWiseman Richard Feynman, one of the best and most charismatic scientific speakers who we have a recording of quite regularly puts a hand in his pocket, e.g.: youtube.com/watch?v=NM-zWTU7X-k It doesn't come across as bad or unnatural. – Captain Emacs Oct 1 '19 at 23:28
14

This may be a cultural thing. But not something I've heard of.

I've been told that in Europe (or parts), at the table you keep both hands above the table. In the US, you keep the left (non primary) hand below the table. I doubt that these old "rules" are widely observed most places, but they might be in some. My mother would have slapped my hand if I tried to use my left hand with a fork to bring something to my mouth. You could hold the fork in the left if you were cutting with a knife, but then had to put down the knife and switch the fork to the right hand. Everyone in England is now laughing.

Yes, the reason for keeping both hands above the table is that putting one below can be considered rude. People wonder what you are doing with that hand, anyway. I leave it to your imagination. Maybe the same imagination has led to the situation described by the OP.

But if you know about cultural taboos, you can observe them, or suffer ridicule or worse. Give presentations naturally, of course, and put the audience at ease.


I think that the fact that the university is in US is likely not relevant. We have students from all over the world, and often they cluster in some classes. For example, I've had classes of about 30 where ten or so were from parts of the former USSR. They grew up with different cultural norms, as did many of the other students.

  • 2
    Haha, but there were no tables involved from what I know. – Gary Drocella Sep 28 '19 at 22:41
  • 3
    Quite! My Mom would have slapped me from keeping the fork in my right hand. The difference being that the knife I use (with my right hand) is not a steak knife but a tool with a bit less cutting power, expected to slice through a potato, a meatball, a slice of pizza or whatnot. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 29 '19 at 7:53
  • 3
    I'm not sure which alarms me more: that people would leap to such conclusions, or that such leaps might not be unmotivated. – Nat Sep 29 '19 at 9:49
  • 2
    @JyrkiLahtonen Cutting a potato with a knife?! My mom would faint if she read this! – sgf Sep 29 '19 at 18:17
  • 7
    Having both arms on the table makes it easier to sit up straight. On a european table you don't cut your food once but you cut as much as you eat at once. You need both hands/tools all the time - except to eat soup, maybe. – Bernhard Döbler Sep 29 '19 at 19:10
6

Just be yourself

The most important thing is to appear clear and confident in what you’re saying. Things like “hands in pocket” are general rules, but not definitive. You’ll be more effective if you stick to your own style and comfort. Some speakers are “understated” and “hands in pocket” might look humble and work with that. Others are more animated.

I would do a dry run with colleagues and ask them what they think on your speaking style. Then keep practicing if there’s anything you want to edit out (like “umms” or hand in pocket). But be gentle here as you really just want to be your best self.

  • 16
    Sorry, but “just be yourself” is terrible advice in the context of giving presentations. Giving a good presentation involves many subtle and not always intuitive nuances of behavior, body language, posture, intonation and lots of other things. Those things come naturally to some people and don’t come naturally to a lot of other people, who therefore need to actively try to not “be themselves” in order to improve their presenting skills. – Dan Romik Sep 29 '19 at 15:54
  • 3
    "Just be yourself" is terrible advice in almost any social situation, not just presentations. It assumes that "yourself" in the natural state of being is the best possible fit for the situation. It rarely is. – Hugo Zink Sep 30 '19 at 9:18
  • @Hugo: well, it at least assumes that "yourself" is adequate. – Steve Jessop Sep 30 '19 at 14:24
  • 3
    Guys, have you read the rest of the answer from the second sentence on? Playng somebody you are not is worse advice. Do a dry runs, ask more expirienced ones for advices, practice on removing bad habits. It is "Find what is good and incorporate it into you" advice to me. Be the best yourself you can be. – Crowley Sep 30 '19 at 22:36
  • 1
    @HugoZink It is terrible advise if taken too literally, but great advise if taken with a pinch of salt. The opposite of 'beiing yourself' means 'trying to act', and actor which didnt have 3 years of full time acting training are even worse to watch. What one shd do is to gently improve beeing oneself. – lalala Oct 2 '19 at 5:29
4

It is likely context or culture specific, but I have given presentations with my left hand at least partway in my pocket (thumb outside) while using a laser pointer/clicker in my right. There is a delicate balance between coming across as confident/relaxed and coming off as not being serious/professional enough. Heckling a speaker is never a good thing (unless the speaker really deserves it for the content of their presentation in extenuating circumstances, but certainly not within an academic context).

2

Adding to Dmitry's answer and reflecting on the presentations I've seen, putting a hand in a pocket as a gesture can be an appropriate technique, keeping a hand in a pocket comes across as disinterested in the subject and disinterested in the audience. For me, a person who kept their hand in their pocket during a presentation would undermine whatever content they were trying to present. I see responses saying 'we should only care about the content' but in my experience the content and the way the content is conveyed are inextricably linked. And the 'clarity' of a presentation is subjective and must take into consideration the response of the audience.

As far as the response. University, as far as I am aware, is a place where learning happens. And in my opinion when it comes to presenting, everyone is a student. Presenting is something that doesn't come naturally to many people, and the university environment should be a safe place to hone the craft. "Ridiculing" a presenter isn't useful for the same reason that ridiculing someone for getting a question wrong on a quiz isn't useful. However - at the same time and for the same purpose - the presenter should be open to receiving feedback about their presentation style. If I am right that everyone is a student of presenting, peer review is best type of learning. Even if the feedback is mostly critical and delivered poorly, there may well be gems of advice that if implemented could take your presentations to the next level. Ignoring all negative feedback isn't useful for the same reason ignoring quiz questions marked as incorrect isn't useful. Nobody is a perfect presenter, and the best presenters will be the ones who don't take criticism as a personal identity attack but as a chance to improve.

The best advice I can give an academic presenter is that the best presentations I've heard are where the speaker served the audience rather than expecting the audience to serve them. Ask someone to record your presentation with video and sound, and with many cringes watch it - it forces you to be a member of your audience. Watch presenters you find engaging and think about the verbal and body cues they use. And especially in the university context, ask for positive and negative feedback often, try new things and don't be afraid to fail.

In short, at least in the academic environment (but probably in general), all feedback should be given with grace and respect, and all feedback should be received with grace and respect.

  • 2
    "Ignoring all negative feedback isn't useful for the same reason ignoring quiz questions marked as incorrect isn't useful" - indeed. But equally, I found that people get upset when their criticism isn't taken. People criticise for many reasons, and more often than not, not to help the criticised person. Listen to criticism, but reserve your right to select which to follow. – Captain Emacs Sep 30 '19 at 8:06
  • @CaptainEmacs I totally agree. I was going to add that giving feedback follows the same principle as presenting, that it's something we need to learn how to do, that it's something we need feedback on. We need feedback for our feedback. But I felt it was starting to get recursive and I'd waffled on enough :) – TastySlowCooker Oct 1 '19 at 1:13
  • And we need to remember to give positive feedback too! If we want our feedback heard maybe say something that the presenter can reinforce rather than just stuff they "should" change. – TastySlowCooker Oct 1 '19 at 1:16
2

A few teachers for presentation skills told me (I live in Germany) that a hand in your pockets is not generally a bad thing. It shows you are relaxed and laid-back. Usually that's good, but I would think in more formal presentations (e. g. for potential customers) it could seem unprofessional.

It is a problem when your hand is stuck inside your pockets and you don't get it out every now and then to use it for some gestures or when your hand is 'restless', making a fist and relax your hand again in your pocket.

  • 1
    It is like a spice. A tiny bit of chili makes the meal taste different, but try to make meal from chili peppers only. – Crowley Sep 30 '19 at 21:46
2

Having a hand in your pocket during a presentation is in no way a bad thing.

Being disengaged, unfocused, and showing a complete lack of interest in your presentation or your audience is a bad thing if you're trying to give a presentation. And while having your hand in your pocket may add to the image of that, your hand in a pocket isn't a bad thing in and of itself.

However what is actually a bad thing in this case is the willingness for the wider academic community to be so eager to jump on a bandwagon of declaring having one's hand in a pocket as a bad thing, because it is a disgustingly ableist point of view over something that doesn't actually have a direct impact on someone's presentation.


For context, I have a shoulder injury that will result in a great deal of pain by the end of the day if I leave my arm/shoulder relaxed and let all the weight of my arm bare on my shoulder. As such I actively try to keep my hand in my pocket or resting on a table or desk as much as possible.

By highlighting the idea of having one's hand in a pocket while giving a presentation as being a bad thing, you are effectively saying that you care far more about an extremely non-issue thing for your own engagement with a presentation than you do about my physical comfort...


I also know several professionals and academics who use stress balls or holding something hidden in a pocket for various coping mechanisms that allow them to even give a presentation.

By allowing the negative viewpoints on having a hand in one's pocket to persist, you are saying you care more about yourself than their being able to actually give you their presentation...


In short, anyone insisting that having a hand in one's pocket is a bad thing in and of itself isn't helping the world improve the quality of academic presentations, but rather they are helping build additional barriers to presentations being given.

1

Having hand in a pocket is a part of body language. Smile, joke, walk, rhetorical question, silence,... This all are tools used in presentations.

If one use them willingly and well, there is no objection to using them. If one use them too much, the presentation is disballanced and it undermines the overall performance.


Was it the proper way to give a presentation? Hard to say, but probably yes. The presenter did it for a reason.

Was the response to the presentation appropriate? No. The presentation style should be the last argument when attacking the presenter, starting from the major flaws. Usually it is the first trigger to carefully look for flaws.

  • 3
    "The presenter did it for a reason." - Yes, but it may not be a good reason. I have seen a lot of people who are not used to talks doing things like not looking at the audience, having hands in pockets, standing directly in front of the blackboard and thus making the contents unreadable etc. Their reasons are that they are not yet comfortable in giving talks. And I think one should definitely point out those issues - even more so since the other students can profit more from this than from specific flaws about the contents. Ridiculing is wrong, of course. – user114568 Oct 1 '19 at 5:21
  • @user114568 I don't say it was a good reason either. It may be, may be not. Doug T. gave a really good advice how to cope with a bad habbit and when to criticize them. Conference stage is not the place to give any "lecture on presenting". The conference dinner, coffee break etc. are times to discuss those issues politely. – Crowley Oct 1 '19 at 20:51
-3

Iff you care about making a good presentation, it's crucial to NEVER put your hands in your pockets during presentations. It's also crucial to EMPTY YOUR POCKETS before delivering a presentation.

It communicates low-confidence, low social status, and low effort/energy/caring for the topic and audience!

Why empty your pockets before delivering a presentation? Because so many presentations are ruined by hands going into pockets, jingling keys, jingling change, cell phones going off, etc. Items in pockets will become distractions, and you don't want to be distracted (again iff you care about making a good presentation).

Default hand position during a presentation should be arms at side with elbows bent 90 degrees, hands outstretched. To communicate friendliness, warmth, enthusiasm, and confidence, use expansive gestures by going wider from the default hand position and making overhead gestures occasionally, smile, tilt your head, and don't be stiff or robotic. A relaxed but upright posture. NEVER cross your arms, put them in your pockets, put them behind your back, cover your crotch (the Adam and Eve pose). Don't point with a finger, point with a hand. Use palms-up (assertive/submissive/friendly) gestures whenever possible, and avoid palms-down (dominant/unfriendly). Sometimes, you can emphasize or punctuate a critical point with a dominant body language, and it shows tremendous confidence. But don't overdo it, or you seem unfriendly.

Watch good presenters and politicians. You will notice they never put their hands in their pockets while speaking/presenting. Maybe they pull something out of a pocket dramatically to demonstrate something. They never have anything in their pockets for their fingers to wander off and jingle.

I abstain from comment on what you heard "through the grapevine", and you shouldn't care about gossip and rumors, either.

  • 5
    Your answer is full of sweeping generalizations and psuedoscience. Johnny Carson put his hands in his pockets all the time. Example: youtu.be/c7fCJb8LhVI?t=67 . Also, are you aware that "iff" is used in logic to mean "if and only if"? – Acccumulation Sep 30 '19 at 22:19
  • 1
    How in the world does putting your hand in your pocket communicate "low social status"??? – aquirdturtle Sep 30 '19 at 23:39
  • @Acccumulation Yeah, David Letterman and Stephen Colbert also put a hand in the pocket during similar part of their LNS. It's to make host seem more casual and simulate a 1 on 1. Yes, I know wtf iff means. There are generalizations. There's no pseudoscience. Note that no LNS host jingles keys or feels a phone in their empty pockets during those segments. – Tom Mercer Oct 1 '19 at 15:49
  • @aquirdturtle Notice in the youtube link above the host keeps removing his hands from his pockets to do expansive gestures as I described. If a host just kept their hands in their pockets and didn't gesture or use over-the-top facial expressions, it'd get weird, fast. High-status people 1. don't care what other people think, and 2. aren't afraid to express their emotions openly. Keeping hands out of pockets shows emotions more openly, but also shows that the communicator doesn't care what others think of their emotions, and isn't trying to hide actions or emotions by hiding their hands. – Tom Mercer Oct 1 '19 at 15:53
  • @aquirdturtle It's low-status to conceal or avoid expressing your emotional state to other people because you're worried about what they think, which hoodies, hands-in-pockets, and contracted body language do. Of course it's possible to wear a hoodie or put a hand in a pocket without concealing your emotional state, as the Johnny Carson clip or most any clip of a LNS host in similar segment demonstrate. For nearly every academic reading this, they're better off just unstifling themselves by keeping hands out of pockets, not hiding behind lecterns, and using expansive gestures. – Tom Mercer Oct 1 '19 at 15:57

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.