Why Gesturing Helps Everyone’s Brain

The first time I watched the video of my TEDx Talk on “How to Be a Mind Reader,” I was appalled.

My hands were always moving.

I thought, “How distracting! I have to learn to let my hands drop to my sides. Or at least not do the same repetitive movements.”

Too many times I’d start a speaking program with this in mind. Then I’d get caught up in my glee at sharing interesting ideas, and having fun with the audience as they applied what they heard. And, sure enough, there were my hands again.

As a leader, you may have faced this, too. Standing to make a presentation, or sitting in front of a screen to lead a virtual meeting.

I Was Wrong

According to Annie Murphy Pauls’ wonderful book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain we can take off the handcuffs when we speak. Here’s what her research (on embodied cognition) reveals.

Gesturing when you speak makes you more persuasive. Moving hands have visual impact: putting you at the center of attention. Your words may describe something, but your hands symbolically turn this into action. As Paul puts it:

the gesturer’s motions render an abstract idea in human scale … an act of translation that makes it easier for onlookers to mentally simulate the gesturer’s point of view for themselves … gesture generates the sense that an as yet immaterial enterprise is a palpable reality in the present moment.

She cites Jean Clarke’s study of entrepreneurs doing pitches to attract funding for their companies. Those who used hand movements to reinforce their points were 12% more likely to get the money they asked for.

Gesturing enhances our memory as speakers and learners. Paul says, “Moving our hands helps our heads think more intelligently.” She believes this happens because we’re offloading information from our brains and into our hands, which frees up our mental resources. Hand gestures also reinforce our spoken words—to ourselves—with visual and motor cues.

In addition, when we’re learning something—and use hand gestures to play back what we understand—something interesting happens. Moving our hands helps us 1) better comprehend abstract and complex ideas, 2) reduce the brainpower we need to “get” the information, and 3) improve our memory.

Gesturing helps our listeners to remember. “Gesture works to amplify the impact of speech,” Paul explains. “[T]he sight of a speaker making gestures effectively captures listeners’ attention and directs it to the words being uttered.”

Then this helps listeners better retain our thoughts and stories.

In one study, when polled immediately after watching the video of a speech, people were 33% more likely to recall a point if it was accompanied by a hand movement. This effect became even more pronounced over time: 30 minutes later, they were 50% more likely to remember that gesture-related point. That means if you’re going to share ideas via video, make sure viewers can see your hands.

What Kinds of Gestures Work?

There are three basic types.

Spontaneous gestures are the ones you make without thinking.

Beat gestures happen (often automatically) when you are making a point. They don’t carry an informational value on their own: they just punctuate the rhythm of your speech. (You can see an example of mine in that TEDx video: I raise and lower my hands with fingertips fanned.)

Designed gestures are ones you’ve thought about that do carry informational value to reinforce your ideas. (On my video, you can see me spreading my arms to symbolize someone coming at you with the intent to hug.)

The goal is to ensure that your hand movements match your content, otherwise you’ll confuse people. (Such as talking about how big something is, but your thumb and index finger are coming together to indicate something small.)

It also helps to get your listeners to gesture along with you. It almost doesn’t matter what you have them do: any kind of hand/arm movement will help them better remember and retain what you’re presenting.

When you speak, the idea is to connect with your listeners, share your ideas effectively, and make these memorable for them. Stop being embarrassed about using your hands. Instead, be aware and intentional.