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Talking with your hands alters the perception of your words (bigthink.com)
121 points by Hooke 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments

I picked up talking with my hands from my father, who has a very animated style of speaking and storytelling. I remember consciously making the decision to use gestures to "annotate" my speech when I was in my early teens, and doing so has paid off (as far as I can tell).

I find that I'm able to convince people of things and explain abstract concepts with much more ease than other people. This holds true even if I don't fully understand the idea I'm explaining. Something about being able to "mold" the space in front of me lends another dimension to weave the fabric of language around.

As a personal anecdote: I won the Marconi-Samueli Award for an app I built when I was 14 called MathSuite. It could parse algebraic equations and yield a result, and it did so offline (think Wolfram Alpha). I'd built the thing from scratch, and on the day of presentation, my computer had crashed and I couldn't ship a version of that app that would run.

Somehow, I convinced the judges of the veracity of the screenshots and claims on my presentation poster, and explained to them the potentially huge ramifications of my app, without being able to demonstrate it working. One judge commented that I had a "very expressive and mature style of explanation" — really, I think my hand gestures were a huge part of it.

> really, I think my hand gestures were a huge part of it.

I think you're right.

Slightly related, I can't find the research, but I read research that teachers apparently explain concepts more understandable when they use accompanying hand gestures.

Oh and also, when explaining statistics, don't use decimal numbers like 0.001%, just multiply it by a big number like 10000 and you can use whole numbers again. So of the one million people in our country, 100 experience XYZ. There also have been multiple papers on that one (can't find them [1]).

Those are two my pedagogical tips of the day :P

[1] Okay, I'm too lazy, it'd take me 15 to 30 min. to find both of them, since they come from my psychology time between 2012 and 2015.

As far as your multiplication trick, I could argue that it depends on what argument you're trying to present. If for example, you wanted to minimize the perceived death rate from a deadly virus, you might say that less than 0.2% percent of the population died as a result. You could also with equal validity say that more than 1 in 1,000 have died. I think it's clear how those two presentations of the same statistic could leave a very different impression if you don't put a lot of thought into the numbers.

Actually recently read an article about it last week.


Maybe it was this one?

Of a full hour it'd take me a quarter to a half to find both


I also learned to do this from my father, who was a trial lawyer. When I joined the US Army, I regularly got 'smoked' in basic training for talking with my hands. I stoped doing it for several years. A few years after leaving the Army it came back subconsciously.

I also attribute much of my persuasiveness to my ability to convey a story in an animated fashion.

> I regularly got 'smoked' in basic training for talking with my hands.

What does this mean, and why is it bad?

Can only guess that gesticulating is a bad habit because the motion catches the eye of an observing enemy, may give away elements of the conversation (e.g. directions, shape of movements), and may designate you as a higher value target (the man with the plan).

Also, you can’t stand at attention and gesticulate at the same time.

Probably that OP was creatively punished for it by superiors or hazed by fellow soldiers. Usually it's only for the fact that you show some noticable non-"standard" behaviour and get bullied for it. Some dense people might deem animated talking "gay".

In my case it was the fact that I was smiling a lot, for which I was hazed constantly.

Damn son, I checked out your websites etc. Amazing portfolio. How does one become a wonderchild like you? I mean I'm most likely older than you but perhaps my future children have a small chance ^^

I’m truly flattered by the moniker of wonderchild :D, though I’m afraid to say I don’t really have any idea how I got here myself. My life has played itself out in the strangest and most wonderful ways, though not without some... not so great things along the way. In some sense I feel my life is analogous to that Daoist Chinese parable “塞翁失馬,焉知非福” [0]. Good creates bad, bad creates good, and so on.

I failed classes because I was busy building an app people said was worthless, and had to transfer schools because of it. That app then won me 2nd place in the national science fair and an asteroid named after me and some $15,000 in prizes. Then, after I won that science fair and experienced great success with it, I came home and fell into a terrible bought of major depression and anxiety. Being depressed and holed up in my room I did nothing but study cryptography and blockchains and buy cryptocurrencies. I flunked more classes, but I tested out of high school a few days after I turned 16. Then I went to work at a battery cooling startup making parts for the Mars Rover, which I promptly got fired from. But by then I had Bitcoin money and I went traveling with it. I bounced for a year around Europe, where I first had the idea for Assembl (which was just acquired). Somehow I ended up at the door of a Swiss VC and pitched them on the idea, and so the story continues.

I could go on. These oscillations have been pretty constant throughout my life. As I’ve begun to understand the pattern, I’ve found better ways of surfing these waves.

[0]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_old_man_lost_his_horse

I only have one regret in life; not buying Bitcoin early :P I wish you the best of luck my friend. Hope to see your name many times. Continue going out in the world and be a champion!

Talk with your hands

I also tend to use my hands to explain a lot, especially when the subject is not something the listener is expert in.

Using gestures to reinforce the idea of how these separate objects are related... this node is the peer of that one, this server runs these two services, etc.

It helps that I usually have a good idea of which concepts the listener has some knowledge of, and which need further explanation or simplification.

I grew up in a Mediterranean country where talking with your hands is the norm, and is a very important part of communication. Hand gestures are not a "recommended" part of the speech, they're part of the language that carries information -- in fact, in written text (where hand gestures don't exist) language is ever so slightly different in order to compensate this fact.

Naturally, I picked this habit up myself. So, when I speak English, I use hand gestures all over the place -- as if I'm talking my mother tongue. I live in Boston, where I think talking with your hands isn't particularly popular... So in the last couple years I've been trying to lose this habit. My experience thus far has been pretty interesting and challenging. At times, it feels like talking without consonants, because for certain ideas my hand movement doesn't feel any less important than the words themselves.

>> I live in Boston, where I think talking with your hands isn't particularly popular...

What made you come to that conclusion, or are you spending all your time amongst a very particular subset of the Boston population?

Hmm I don't know it might be wrong. But a few people from different circles commented on my hand gestures, one said I have very expressive hand gestures, the other said I "talk like an Italian". None of this is bad of course, they were not pejorative remarks, but it made me think my hand gestures are probably too expressive for sn average American? I don't know. Who knows maybe these comments were biased too, or maybe my hand gestures are too extreme even for my own culture. Anyway, all I know is, "talking with your hands" is definitely an integral component of how I speak.

One of my memories from basic training (circa 2002), was standing in formation and hearing an indistinct conversation between a platoon member and the platoon sergeant. At some point, the platoon sergeant loudly interrupts and yells "DO NOT SPEAK WITH YOUR HANDS PRIVATE!", while forcefully slapping the private's hands out of the air.

This has stuck with me my entire life, and I have a very real urge to mimic that behavior in the civilian world when someone begins using their hands during speech. Right or wrong, I don't know (and don't care), but that's the "talking with your hands" story that has been burned in my brain since being an uppity 18 year old.

If gesturing is a more effective way of speaking, then it make sense for the power structure to take it away from the subordinates. If a private could convince his superior to believe something or do something then it upsets the hierarchy. Maybe there's unscientific words like hypnosis or mesmerization you could attach to this idea of gesturing with speaking.

In D&D, there's somatic, verbal, and material components to spell casting. Somatic components are the precise hand movements to aid in spell casting. That fictional idea/meme had to have been generated by some real-world phenomena, no?

Edit to expand: I also think this may be why even beyond the military there seems to be a widespread stigma against gesturing while speaking. Not that a majority of people look down on it, but that some significant percentage tend to do so at least.

It might seem unfair to some parties to have these extra gestures "used" on them to convince them of things that go beyond what the words they use actually mean. I know personally, I much much prefer to read what politicians said, via a transcript, rather than watch them speak. Their body language + gestures + tones can really change perceptions so significantly that I don't want to let myself be preventably persuaded by otherwise disagreeable positions.

I think it’s far, far simpler than that, and no conspiracy about power is required: moving hands attract the eye of enemies, pointing and mimicking movement give away elements of what’s being said. Hand signs require visual contact with those being addressed. If you’re behind me and I ask you “where” and you say “over there” and point, what good does that do unless I turn around, take eyes off what I’m doing and ask you to repeat. There’s more overhead involved in communicating that way. I think these are some very practical reasons for it. I also think the advantages of using hands in explaining something (to clarify) may imply that your words alone are not clear enough. It’s an important skill to be able to speak clearly and succinctly in times of collective stress.

Very fair and thoughtful counterpoint. I think I may have been imagining that 'smart aleck private trying to get one over on the brute drill sergeant' trope.

Totally agree that tactical communication requires brevity and clarity.

Your idea of reading a politician's speech's transcript is really good. I will do this too. Thanks for this valuable idea.


Could that have been part of learning to use your voice in a noisy (battle) environment where you may need to communicate with people who can't see you?

Or where the enemy can see you.

Interesting. I remember being taught some fishy stuff in school such as the tongue map, and the fact communication was at least 70% nonverbal.

Internet access at home not being a thing at the time (at least in my country) meant we believed most if not all of that stuff. People are much more skeptical now than a couple of decades ago, to the point that claiming hand gestures slightly improve communication requires full blown studies to back it up. And I'm 100% fine with it.

When I used to do software consulting I would create an unshakeable confidence that I knew what I was talking about by sitting back in an armchair and tenting my fingers in front of me as I spoke.

If I didn’t need hands to type that’s probably how I would also deliver most of my comments here on HN.

> I would create an unshakeable confidence that I knew what I was talking about

Is this self-confidence, making you feel you know what you are talking about?

Or do you think it convinced/conned the audience by using such as a dubious visual prop?

I picked up the tenting-my-fingers from a boss I really admired -- he had both the technical-academic and the business-selling chops to the highest degrees. In my experience it does make people listen to you longer, even if you pause longer to think and so on. But this is likely to be culture-bound.

Was that boss Mr. Burns?[0]

Cant help but think of him when people do that. It’s also prescribed to people as a confidence-booster, so it makes me a little more skeptical of someone when they pull that, ‘specially with a contemplative pause.

[0] https://images.app.goo.gl/AerFJgpZVkiE8rrf7

Hmm funny, but that link hijacked my back button. As I clicked BACK for the third time, I imagined the programmer of the page looking contentedly down on me from above, with tented fingers...

Ok so surely "contented" isn't anything to do with finger tents?! ... Apparently it's from the Latin contentus, from continere "to hold together, enclose".[1]

"Sense connection of "contained" and "satisfied" probably is that the contented person's desires are bound by what he or she already has"

That does sound more than accidentally related to hand-tenting! You are actually displaying your enclosure, your container.


[1] Spanish has "contener" – to contain, include, control, repress, hold back. Corresponding to contentus is "contenido" – contained, held back, (noun) contents, (adj) reserved, restrained.

It might be. I bumped into this last week and I found it fascinating. Long to short, your body language not only affects how others perceive you, it affects how you perceive you.


That aside, I'm reading Adam Grants "Think Again." He mentioned at least one study where appearing infallible can be a bad thing. That you can become less believable, less likeable and so on. There's more to influencing others than coming across as Mr / Ms Know-it-all. Showing too much confidence can work against you.

Ahh... the "Merkel-Raute" (Merkel diamond).


Character? Dominance? Those have nothing to do with hearing words correctly. What about visual attentiveness and reducing ambiguity?

In fact, the actual recent study finds a specific lexical stress effect, but this piece mixes it with different research about different movements.

I’ve gesticulated without thinking about it since I was a child. I think I get it from my mum, I’ve always considered it a bad thing and that people think it’s weird but I can’t stop myself - I even do it when I’m on the phone and no one can see me.

Guess it might have inadvertently helped me. People have always said I’m quite persuasive, maybe this is part of it.

Probably also explains why sign language interpreters similarly use NVBs beyond their hands to express spoken language.

Is there any other way to speak? Italian roots Edit: the pinched fingers unicode emoji get deleted when I post it [https://emojipedia.org/pinched-fingers/]

I think it goes far beyond that. It also seem to make person look more interesting and intelligent. Making up two characters and talking simultaneously as one person and two hands is like a strike of genius. Or craziness. Either way it will attract attention

Like sock puppets??

Yes but without socks I suppose

Totally relevant commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNCrMEOqHpc

I find the office caricatures interesting - the balding, tubby old guy at the end isn’t nodding knowingly at the young guy confirming the effectiveness of the hand motion trick by the sleazy manager, he’s nodding like he’s been taken in by it. This seems to deliberately communicate a lot in kind of distopic way.

This explains why zoom and powerpoint presentations numb your grey matter.

A lot of zoom calls don't show hand gestures. PowerPoint is always turning your attention away from the speaker.

I've said this on here before, but the trick to better online presenting for us tech-focused nerds is getting very familiar with OBS, get a Streamdeck (or build one, e.g. Deej) and set up your presentations so that you always show yourself in front and in the corner of any slide deck you're showing, much like most youtubers do. Then you can hand gesture all you want, too.

When WFH began, I put a bit of time into getting OBS set up, fixing lighting, using better camera, fixing audio. Very much worth it, though my laptop processor was ill suited for the task when added atop its normal “day job”. Built a desktop for the first time in years and reminded myself why laptops kinda suck. But yeah, the OBS picture-in-picture is good, plus overlaying your name, company and contact info elsewhere in the shot may be appropriate depending on audience (e.g. Q&A after presentation).

Knowing how to use OBS has also been useful in helping some non-profit organizations get their remote interactions dialed in.

What is OBS ?

Open Broadcaster Software


I wasn't conscious of how much I used my hands in conversation until I started doing Zoom meetings, and found myself uncomfortable until I found myself raising my hands so that gestures were visible in the camera.

I've been studying this area on the acting side for about ten years.

We've tested people in tens of thousands of live performance coaching sessions and discovered that most people can be approximately divided into four body language groups based on which parts of their body "want" to move.

If you try to think about moving body parts that don't "want" to move, you will sound distracted when speaking, and other parts will mostly hold still.

If you think about parts that DO want to move, you will sound expressive, and other parts of your anatomy will join in naturally. E.g. if you are wired for Head, neck and shoulders—what we call zone 1, and think about making faces when speaking, your hands will begin to gesture. But if you think about using your hands, your gestures will be stiff and you will sound distracted.

Actors who perform voice over know that energetic body language is required. Our interactions with and tests of aspiring and experienced actors have been through 78 voice acting events where we record as many at 350 live performance coaching sessions in a day, and through the several group classes we do every week through our business the School of Acting and Voiceover.

In all, my wife Sarah and I have done around 30,000 live coaching sessions.

Our advice to actors is to determine which of the four "zones" you are most wired for, and consciously expand your use of movement in that zone to sound both more expressive, and more authentic.

It's as if you need to tell your subconscious "these are the allowable and expected motions during the upcoming activity" or you will be more tight, anxious and unnatural. The four zones are:

1) Head, neck and shoulders. Common tip: Tilt your head slightly and reposition some part of your face (raised eyebrow, parted lips, etc) before speaking

2) Hands, arms and shoulders. Common tip: Keep your wrists above your elbows at all times to allow natural gestures to occur, as hands are psychologically difficult to lift when they drop below elbows.

3) Body posture. Common tip: Dance a bit before speaking, or, while keeping your feet planted and your head facing forwards, rotate your shoulders 90° left then 90° right.

4) Whole body (everything moves). Common tip: Plan the posture and movements you will use as you begin speaking to consciously set a more expressive starting point.

Most of our training programs are not available publicly. Though we have advertised in the past, most of our students have come through referrals over the last 15 years, partly because we have hired people at all levels of our industry to come be coaches, and they know we base much of our training on how they themselves work with people in the industry.

We currently only train remotely (e.g. via Zoom), though we maintain an in-person training center (currently used mostly for storage). Although SchoolofVoiceover.com has some public learning content, most of our content (about 1,000 articles) is only available through a private, invitation-only forum.

Latinos have entered the chat..

Mamma mia!

of course I was expecting a comment like that :)

you're getting downvoted anyway tho!

Gestures are apparently very important for Thought Leaders


> Although these experiments were conducted with only Dutch speakers, the team believes that it's likely they would have found the same results with other languages.

Red flag. That's not science.

Recommending directions for future work by other researchers - this by you isn't science?

What is science according to you?

Testing hypotheses experimentally before declaring the likelihood of a result.

That's a rather stinted defition of the scientific process. Even formalist, natural-science-focussed theories like Poppers critical rationalism allow for this approach (which isn't even part of the paper, BTW), as long as the thesis is falsifiable.

Hard disagree.

Having "probable cause" to test a hypothesis is an important part of science. Testing neutral hypotheses is only a recipe for pointless p-hacking, I'd say that's not science.

In this case, it isn't a neutral hypothesis.

Languages exist as part of culture. To extrapolate and assume that these Dutch results will translate into other languages, because languages are translatable and therefore equivalent, is to ignore culture.

For the same reason that what you know as "hand waving" is not neutral, the proposition deserves to be investigated rigorously in a way that isolates cultural signals from language, to the extent possible. That's a significant experimental challenge that warrants a scientific objectivity which is compromised by presuming the result.

But I may be reading too much into this, because I'm giving a reason why the results might translate. The original researchers don't even give that. They just say they think it will, without giving a reason. That's not science - it is speculation.

I'm fine with speculation and opinions. They have their uses and contexts. All I'm saying is that speculation and opinions are not science. The value of science arises precisely from where expectations are upended by experimental data.

Yes, culture and language are interconnected and therefore interpretations/importance of hand gestures may depend on specific language

And what about that definition suggests that scientists are not allowed to say what they expect to see in future research without claiming that they've proven it, which is what the quote you referenced boils down to.

As far as I can tell they aren't claiming that their research generalizes, only that they expect it will.

They didn't declare the likelihood of the result, they declared what they believe to be the likelihood of the result.

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