April 11, 2011

Go Ahead and Talk with Your Hands, But Know What You’re Saying

For an upcoming opening statement or closing argument, your gestures are probably the last thing on your mind…until you actually get up to speak. Then, the commentator in your brain might be asking, “why am I gripping the sides of this lectern?” or “Is there a way I can make myself stop these meaningless chopping motions?” In this post, I want to answer the speaker’s age-old question, “but what do I do with my hands?” by focusing on some recent studies on the communicative role of gestures, as well as providing some practical advice for gesturing naturally in front of your jury or your judge.

By: Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm –

Faces on hands 

Gesture shot

For an upcoming opening statement or closing argument, your gestures are probably the last thing on your mind…until you actually get up to speak.  Then, the commentator in your brain might be asking, "why am I gripping the sides of this lectern?" or "Is there a way I can make myself stop these meaningless chopping motions?"  In this post, I want to answer the speaker's age-old question, "but what do I do with my hands?" by focusing on some recent studies on the communicative role of gestures, as well as providing some practical advice for gesturing naturally in front of your jury or your judge. 

Now, this is the point in an introduction to an article on gestures where I would point out the familiar statistic that communication is 93% non-verbal…if that were true.  Actually, this urban myth is based on a popular, but incorrect reading of some research in the sixties that even the author of the study has disavowed.  It remains true that physical gestures are important parts of a message, but that is not because they convey a direct or definite meaning.  I am not one of those who thinks you can 'decode' gestures or other body language to reveal hidden meanings — it just isn't that simple.  Instead of playing a deterministic role, gestures are more subtle. 

But gestures do definitely matter in how messages are sent and received.  A recent study on the communication roles of gestures provides some very important pointers (can't resist the pun) for those of us who persuade for a living.  And given that the research is on talking with your hands, it is predictably enough, a group of Italian researchers.  Maricchiolo, Gnisci, Bonaiuto & Ficca (2009) have presented what is likely the first fully-controlled experiment looking at the persuasive effectiveness of hand gestures in isolation, and that alone was enough to get me to hand over the $34 to see what they had found.  This study focused on video-recorded presentations that varied only in the presence or absence and style of hand-gestures, and ended up with three broad findings: 

  • First, you should gesture.  Regardless of the type of gesture (see the second bullet), gesturing is more persuasive than not gesturing. 
  • Second, you should avoid gesturing toward yourself.  Pointing to yourself, placing hands on your self, or otherwise self-referencing created lower impressions of a speaker's competence. 
  • Third, your best gestures are "linked to speech."  In other words, instead of mere movements that carry no necessary meaning, the best gestures are those that are "ideational" in conveying or reinforcing an idea (see types 2, 3, and 4 below).  When speakers linked their gestures to speech, study participants saw them as more effective, and more composed.

Not only do gestures help your audience, but they also help the speakers.  Another study (Cook, Mitchell, & Goldin-Meadow, 2007) found that the use of gestures while explaining a concept led to better understanding and learning by the speaker. 

Now, nothing in this research, or any other that I'm aware of, suggests that it is a good idea to carefully prepare or rehearse gestures.  Unless you are a well-trained actor, those gestures will look forced and uncomfortable, which is the opposite of the natural competence that you want to convey.  But, neither is it effective to simply reach for the other end of the spectrum and free your limbs to do whatever feels right, because what feels right is often nothing, or the same gesture over and over again. 

Instead, a happy medium is to pay a little attention to gestures — not a lot — but enough that you are aware of the variety and functions of gestures.  So here is a handy "pocket guide" to the main types of gestures and some ways you can use them in the context of legal persuasion.  The naming system is my own, but the list itself is familiar in the literature

1. Beat

1.  "Beats" (or Rhythmic Gestures).  These are puntuated up and down or side to side gestures that can accompany speech like a conductor's baton.  Because they are not linked to speech, they are not the most effective gestures.  Also, to the extent that they can accompany any type of content, they can become a favorite for speakers, and a distraction to viewers.  Still, they can play an important role:  Think of them as a visual way to run a highlighter over parts of your message.  If you use them sparingly, and if you chose to break one or two "beats" out just as you are reaching a critical point, then your audience will pay more attention and be more likely to remember that content.

2. Point 2.  "Points" (Or Deictic Gestures).  The speaker using these will indicate (with a finger, hand, shoulder, or even head) toward something that is present in the room ("…that defendant sitting there") or toward something that is being referred to ("…and he fled all the way to Philadelphia").  Because they are definitely linked to speech, they are more effective, competent gestures.  They directly help the audience to see what you are referring to.  Still, your target is important:  an occasional finger poke toward your adversary can be effective, as long as it is respectful and not aggressive, but pointing directly at your audience can be seen as impolite or domineering.  The best "points" can be toward a concept or a position, helping to concretize something that would otherwise be abstract.

3 Iconic

3.  "Shapes" (or Iconic Gestures).  Here, speakers use their hands like a sculptor to indicate some form ("…all the names were placed in a large, round bowl"), or some process ("..then he climbed quickly up the tree.")  You can easily imagine a speaker shaping the bowl in the first example, or wiggling some fingers to indicate a climbing motion in the second.  In the Italian study above, these are the most effective gestures, because they are most directly connected with the content of the speech.  It isn't that the audience needs the gesture to understand the concept (bowls and tree-climbing are familiar enough) it is that the gesture helps the audience visualize and hence participate in the message rather than just receiving it. 

4. Metaphoric4. "Metaphors" (or Analogous Gestures).  A gesture serves as a metaphor when it draws upon a conceptual relationship to your speech content.  Rather than drawing a definite object or a process (like a "shape" above), it bears a metaphoric relationship to what you are saying.  For example, a gesture indicating support (e.g., the image to the left) could accompany a general message conveying some form of support.  But the key to this method is subtlety:  instead of "…and that is why you should support [gesture] my client" you would want to sustain a gesture like that while covering a longer topic that is oriented toward support.  So you should gesture in support of the concept, not an individual word.   

5. Cohesive3 5.  "Placeholders" (or Cohesive Gestures).  These gestures facilitate the communication process by helping messages hang together for the viewer.  In the way that a storyteller might adopt the same physical movement whenever referring to a specific character, gestures can serve to demarcate your content.  For example, if you are arguing with opposing counsel during a bench conference, and your adversary cuts you off mid-sentence, you might keep your hands in the same up-raised position they were in before you were interrupted, while opposing counsel proceeds, just to signal that you have not surrendered the floor.  Or, when you are handling a judge's question that forces you to depart from the main thread of your argument, you might drop the gesture you were using, and then resume that same gesture once you are done with the side-issue and back on the main track of your argument.

Looking at gestures with this level of detail, it is easy to say, "No thanks, I'll focus on content…"  but it is important to remember that the audience is watching as well as listening.  Content is king, as it should be in the legal process, and natural delivery will always be best.  But thinking about the parts of communication carried by your hands and body, especially as it relates to the function of gestures, is an important part of the whole picture. 

Just as a reminder that gestures can be carried to an unnatural extreme, I wanted to end with a video on Google's recent announcement of "Gmail Motion," a new program that allows you to manage and compose your email messages using only gestures and a motion-detecting webcam.  It was an April Fool's prank by the company, but it was presented in such a hilariously straight-faced way that it ended up not only fooling a few people, but also inspiring an actual product.


Related Posts:


ResearchBlogging.org Cook SW, Mitchell Z, & Goldin-Meadow S (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition, 106 (2), 1047-58 PMID: 17560971

Maricchiolo, F.; Gnisci, A.; Bonaiuto, M., & Ficca, G. (2009). Effects of different types of hand gesturs in persuasive speech on receivers' evaluations Language and Cognitive Processes, 24 (2), 239-266

 Photo Credits:  Hands with faces: Chris Broda-Bahm (subjects: Ken & Sadie Broda-Bahm).  Gesture Icons: Crystal Campbell, Flickr Creative Commons

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