The Nuns Were Wrong About Your Hands. Here’s Why.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 19, 2014 – 6:02 am

I occasionally ask audiences whether anyone went to Catholic school. I follow up by asking those who did whether they were ever instructed that it was rude to gesture using their hands. Many of them nod their heads, chuckling at the memory from long ago.

It’s not just nuns (and certainly not all of them) who perpetuated the belief that gesturing with one’s hands is considered undisciplined, undignified, and unrefined. Many of our presentation training clients have been taught the same thing by other presentation trainers (although I know many great trainers who never teach that erroneous advice).

In this post, I’ll strip away the myths about gesture—and share with you what the experts tell us.

Angry Nun with Ruler

Researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, tells us that “we have not yet discovered a culture in which speakers do not move their hands as they talk.”

It turns out that gesture is innate. “Even individuals who are blind from birth and have never seen others gesture purposefully move their hands as they talk,” Goldin-Meadow reports. In one study, “the blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group.”

Whereas many people once believed that speech and gesture were two different things that could be teased apart, the research suggests otherwise. Goldin-Meadow writes:

“Gesture not only conveys meaning but does so in a manner that is integrated with speech. Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system.”

look at that!

Not convinced yet? In their book Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction, authors Mark Knapp, Judith Hall, and Terrence G. Horgan report similar findings:

“Gestures help speakers retrieve certain words or describe objects that move as part of their function, and thus serve a greater interpersonal function. Listeners may benefit more from a speaker’s gestures when these gestures add emphasis or clarity to speech, help characterize and make memorable the content of speech, and act as forecasters of forthcoming speech.”

The evidence is clear. Humans speak using their hands. Effective communication depends on it. If any trainers tell you otherwise, throw them out of your office.

There are, of course, some guidelines for the best way to gesture. You can see some of those here.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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