To Show Hands Or Not To Show Hands: That Is The Question

Reader Monica Miller Rodgers asks the following question:

“I notice you express your ideas with lots of hand movements (as do I). In media training, though, I have always taught clients to keep their hand movements below the waist to avoid getting gestures in the frame. I teach them to continue using their hands and not to hold them stiffly (then you just get odd shoulder movements), but to keep them low. What is your recommendation for this?”

First, let’s address the biggest downside of allowing gestures in the frame: They can, in some circumstances, be distracting. For example, if someone makes fast gestures, waves their hands near their face, or is wearing stacked bracelets that make noise every time they near the microphone, their gestures can distract the audience and prevent viewers from hearing their words. 

you got to understand that

But in my experience, those moments are not the norm. The vast majority of the time, speakers who gesture normally look more natural, which is the goal. When I’ve asked our trainees to restrict their hand movements, I’ve observed that they usually become duller—both in terms of their energy and their content.

I’ve concluded that asking people not to gesture—or to dramatically change the way they typically gesture—makes them slower of thought. There’s research to back up my conclusion. According to Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think by Susan Goldin Meadow:

“Gesturing can lighten a speaker’s cognitive load, thus saving effort to expend on other tasks. Moreover, gesturing may even affect the course of thought, making some ideas salient and others not. We may be changing what we think just by moving our hands.”

“Gesture and speech together form a single unified system and, within this system, are coexpressive. Both modalities contribute to a speaker’s intended meaning…Listeners carry out this same synthesis—in the process of speech comprehension, listeners synthesize the information presented in speech and in gesture to form a single unified representation.”

In other words, asking spokespersons to restrain their movements could inhibit both their own thinking and their connection with the audience.

I agree there are times when gestures pose a distraction. But from my perspective, the opposite problem—unnatural stiffness—is the bigger problem of the two. Thanks for your question, Monica!

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