The three benefits of gesturing – it’s not what you think

Why is it, that when you’re speaking in front of a group you suddenly become aware of these great clumsy appendages at the end of your arms – your hands?

Why do you suddenly wonder what to do about them?

Gesturing is natural

In normal one-to-one conversation you never think “What shall I do with my hands?”. In normal conversation, your hands are probably gesturing without you giving them any conscious thought. On our courses, the participants rehearse their presentation in pairs before presenting to the group. So they get to present to just to one other person. As I stand back and observe the room I see all these people talking with animation and energy, with natural gestures to go along with what they’re saying. That’s because gesturing is normal and natural.

There is a theory that gestures were the precursor to language – the gestural theory of language evolution. In the June 2008 issue of Scientific American there was an article on the the neuroscience of dance. It reported that Broca’s area (the part of the brain which is associated with speech production) is also activated during certain movement tasks. So it seems that speaking and gestures go hand-in-hand.

But for some people when they speak in front of group their natural gesturing disappears. I see this on our courses when people who had been talking with lots of gestures in the one-on-one rehearsal suddenly seem to lose that ability when they speak in front of a larger group. That’s because a common reaction to being on show in front of a group is to freeze and become stiff – it’s a symptom of nervousness.

It’s not what what you think

And it does matter. But not for the reason you may think.

It is not because your gestures help the audience understand what you’re saying. You may have heard that 55% of the meaning of your presentation comes from your facial expression and gestures, 38% from your tone of voice and 7% from your words. This is bunkum and arises from a huge misinterpretation of a research study by Albert Mehrabian. Click here for an enlightening discussion of the Mehrabian myth.

The three reasons why gesturing is helpful

First, gesturing helps you be fluent and articulate. There is a large body of scientific evidence to support this. In an interesting study, three groups of subjects were asked to speak under different conditions. One group had both arms immobilised, the second group had one arm immobilised and the third group was free to gesture. The experimenters found that disfluency increased as gesture was restricted. In addition, research shows that restricting hand gestures makes it more difficult to find the right words.

Robert Krauss from Columbia University has published many papers on this topic. He concludes one of his papers with this story:

Many years ago, my maternal grandfather told me a story about two men in his hometown, Vitebsk, Belorussia, walking down a road on a bitterly cold winter day. One man chattered away animatedly, while other nodded from time to time, but said nothing. Finally, the man who was talking turned to his friend and said: “So, nu, Shmuel, why aren’t you saying anything?” “Because,” replied Shmuel, “I forgot my gloves.” At the time, I didn’t see the point of the story. Half a century later it has become a primary focus of my research.

So by gesturing you not only unfreeze your body you unfreeze your mind.

Secondly, gesturing conveys enthusiasm and energy to your audience. Surveys of what people like and dislike about presentations consistently report that people what presenters to show passion and enthusiasm.

Thirdly, when the audience sees you gesturing they will think that you look confident. That’s because nervous speakers are often frozen and stiff. Not only that but you may also fool your mind into thinking you are confident. You’ll realise that you’re speaking in a confident, conversational manner and start to feel that way too.

So what to do with your hands?

Unclasp them (or take them out of your pockets) and let them be free. To begin with they may just hang by your sides – that’s OK. Although it feels awkward it looks fine. As you get into the flow of your talk – your hands will join in. Because gesturing is a natural part of speaking.

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  1. Not only a great post, great evidence based writing.

    Some times it is too easy to hear a bit of science, even quote it, and yet it is totally misunderstood as with the Mehrabian myth.

    And as you said, “Although it feels awkward…” I can still remember my first talk decades ago and how uncomfortable it was. But my mentor told me just what you said.

    Your right, eventually they join in.


  2. Thanks Jonathan for relating your experience with letting your hands be free. It’s useful for other people to know that it does work – your hands do eventually join in.

  3. Great article! It’s a strange phenomenon when people who are normally free with their gestures suddenly don’t know what to do with their hands. When you stop thinking about it, everything works just fine!

    And thanks for your comments on the Mehrabian research. I’ve blogged about it a couple of times, and I feel that I’m on a mission to clarify this misinterpreted statistic as often as I can.

  4. Thanks for the article! Now, if only business suits were a bit less confining…

    Regarding the Mehrabian research, I think it’s also important to note that, while the statistic is not necessarily relevant to meaning, it is to ‘likeness’ and first impressions. And because no person is perfect nor exactly alike, it’s easy to send contradictory messages, the focus of Mehrabian’s research. It’s often misused, but still important research that we don’t want to minimize – after all, who hasn’t used sarcasm once in a while? ;-)

  5. Regarding Mehrabian – I am reminded of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson – “I can’t hear what you are saying, because who you are being is talking to loudly”

  6. Hi Olivia,

    The challenge I’m having with body language is that my “natural gestures” don’t look so natural. They’re a bit stiff and choppy, rather than smooth and relaxed.

    When presenting, I don’t think I look nervous, and I don’t feel much nervousness. But my body language seems a bit restricted and repetitive.

    Here’s my most recent speech:

    I’d really appreciate it if you could give me any tips! Thanks.

    • Great talk, Kevin (love the structure :-)).

      Here are my thoughts on your body language:
      1. First be aware, that watching yourself back on video is a different experience than watching face to face. The reason for that is that the video puts a frame around you which tends to accentuate the gestures. So the repetitiveness that you see, is unlikely to have been picked up people in your live audience.
      2. However, I do see what you mean about your gestures being a little restricted and repetitive. The reason is that you’re gesturing just from your elbows rather than using the whole of your arms. To free yourself up from your shoulders I suggest moving more. That is move around the stage. This should be deliberate moving – not just pacing up and down. I have some ideas on this in this post
      Hope this is helpful.

      • Olivia, thanks so much for your feedback!

        Glad you liked the structure — you know who I learned that from. :)

        1. “The video puts a frame around you which tends to accentuate the gestures.” Great point, thanks for making me aware of that.

        2. Yes, I’m mostly moving from the elbow joint without also moving from the shoulder joint. I’ll work on this! (This might help my dancing too, hah hah.)

        3. Yes, I was very stationary during this speech — I only moved once to go from the left side to the right side. There is not much space to move in this room without standing in the stream of the projector.

        Next time, I’ll use fewer slides or black slides, and I’ll try to move around more.

        I’ll read the article that you linked to. Thanks!

        • Glad that was helpful Kevin. Remember that you can move from front to back as well eg: back to the screen to point something out, and then close to the audience to hammer home your point.

  7. Thanks so much for this infomation. I was just told by Directors (I’m rehearsing educational work shops) to stop using my hands when public speaking. As soon as I did this my brain turned to mush and I could not communicate, find the words or feel enthusiastic.
    Now I just have to figure out how to tell the Director!


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