the blog

Everyone Gestures

Whenever I’m teaching a presentation skills workshop or working with a high-level client on an important speech, the topic of hand gestures inevitably comes up. Clients aren’t quite sure what to do with their hands, so they naturally look for a convenient parking spot: Pockets, arms folded and hands clasped behind the back are favorites.

When engaged in informal conversation, however, these same people move their hands and arms naturally and in tune with what they are saying. No coaching is required. When I point it out (or better yet, sneak in some video and play it back so they can see what they do when they think they’re not being observed), they are amused, abashed, and intrigued. But they are still bewildered because they cannot figure out how to have their hands accompany them when they make the leap from “private” communication to “public.”

Recent research and discoveries about gestures are enlightening. One fascinating piece of information is that if there is a culture that communicates without gestures, it hasn’t been discovered yet!

Lack of Gesturing One Cause of the Current Downturn?

Gesturing is, of course, absent on the phone. This presents challenges for businesses because so much of our time is spent in conference calls, some of them critical. For example, there is the quarterly analyst conference call that many of my clients, the CEOs of public companies, must initiate.  With few exceptions, such calls are scripted events with the CEO and CFO typically reading from a script prepared in collaboration with the investor relations professional. As you might imagine, the information is data driven and very dry – this is some mind-numbing stuff. I have frequently wondered whether the periodic economic declines, and even corporate frauds and scandals, are in some way intertwined with the generally boring delivery; since it’s a phone call, there are no visual stimuli and scripting encourages vocal delivery to be flat.

This makes it easy for the analysts to tune out and/or do other work and, unfortunately, that is exactly what happens. This is an important issue because if they are not listening carefully to what is being said, they cannot ask the vital, probing questions that would lead them to make better decisions on behalf of their clients as well as force the companies hosting the call to keep everything on the up and up.

This is not to say that all or even most public companies are looking to pull a fast one, or that most analysts are not doing their jobs. But it does point out a very human fact of communication: We need to be engaged if we are to fully grasp the meaning of spoken language. And hand gestures are one of most effective nonverbal methods of enhancing that meaning.

Hand Gestures Help Us Teach – And Learn

Some of the most interesting research on gestures is being done by Susan Wagner Cook, formerly of the University of Rochester and now at the University of Iowa. In an experiment with elementary school children, Cook was able to show that gestures aid learning. While teaching a group of young learners how to solve a math problem, Cook used specific gestures to emphasize each step in a problem as she taught it. She then asked the students to orally repeat the words and mimic her gestures. A second group of students was taught the same problem minus the gestures and with a third group, more abstract gestures were used – the kind most of us make when speaking. Three weeks later, all the students were tested. The two groups that learned to solve the problems with both speech and gestures (either specific or abstract) were three times more likely to solve the equation correctly than those who learned with spoken words alone.

It is well known in the professional development community that adults need visual stimuli even more. For example, when we give our limited and precious time to attend presentations, we want to take something away. Unfortunately, we have all been at presentations where the speaker does not move, grabs onto the podium or stands before us with hands parked in one of the positions I described earlier. When this happens, teaching and learning are hindered and we take away less than we deserve to.

Hand Gestures Help Us Think

In addition to teaching and learning benefits, hands help us think! Consider all the times you are speaking and find yourself struggling to find the right word or phrase. Now try to recall what your hands are doing at these moments. In all likelihood, they’re moving in some interesting ways, as if by waving them around, you will pluck from deep in your brain just the word or phrase you are looking for.

In fact, neuroscientists, linguists and psychologists who study speech have found that the part of the brain associated with gestures increases in activity when someone is doing mental math problems. And when someone gestures, the part of the brain responsible for speech is activated. Researchers therefore believe there is a strong connection between gesturing and problem solving.

Lending more credence to this theory is Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, who observes that blind people gesture and so do deaf people – in addition to signing – in exactly the same ways as the sighted and hearing population. The thinking behind this is that gestures “lighten the cognitive load.”

Yet many people erroneously believe that gesturing is somehow unseemly or dramatic or – heaven forbid – too “salesy.”

Let Your Hands Do Some Talking

The next time you are asked to speak and the stakes are high, try the following with your hands:

  • Be animated. Think about the message you wish to convey: higher, lower, ranking, counting, etc., each have a variety of gestures that could accompany them. And those are far from the only ones.
  • Be expansive. The size and scope of your gestures depend on the size of the room and where you are situated. The bigger the room, the bigger the gestures.
  • “Choreograph.” If you’re really not sure about what to do with your hands, you may have to “choreograph” some moves to get you going.
  • Begin gesturing as soon as possible. There is no law that says if you haven’t been using your hands, you can’t start. Much better late than never.
  • Don’t use a podium as a crutch. If you must stand behind a podium, resist the tendency to grab onto its sides or rest your hands on top. In fact, since the podium is blocking you, you must be even more expansive.
  • Observe the listeners. In one-on-one or small group settings, observe your listeners; if you notice they are watching your hands, you may have to tone it down a bit. But don’t eliminate. Adjust slightly.
  • Gesture while speaking on the phone. Why? Because even though your listeners cannot see you, it will increase your impact and make you much more interesting to listen to. (Maybe this is a good time to go out and get that headset.)

One more benefit to gestures is that they are a terrific way to channel any nervous energy you may be experiencing. When I’m onstage, to calm the inevitable jitters, I find it very helpful to envision myself as a superhero who can shoot electricity from my fingertips. (Ok, now you know one of my silly secrets.)

With gesturing such an important technique in communication, perhaps we should rethink the rush toward teleseminars, webinars and other online and remote forms of teaching and learning. That includes those quarterly conference calls. While I do believe there is a need for all these technologies, they may require modification and adaptation as possible. Furthermore, they will never replace the kind of depth that can be reached by seeing a person in action.

Teaching, learning, thinking and calming your nerves are some terrific reasons to use gestures. And to all my Italian, Greek and other friends who hail from gesticulating ethnicities and cultures, the naysayers have been wrong!

Copyright 2009 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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