Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Speaking science: Gesture to speak better

Coyote and Roadrunner were the original action heroes. You’ve got the falling anvils, the rocket cars, the exploding kegs of TNT, and anything else Coyote could order up from Acme to catch that beep-and-run bird. I admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Coyote, but maybe it was Roadrunner who had the best strategy: keep moving.

When some people speak, they grip the podium as a way to steady themselves and their speech. Some people can’t keep their hands off the laser pointer, and others force their arms down to their sides lest their hands fly up and hide their words in a nervous flutter. But if you’re looking for a way to get your words out with a minimum of “ums” and awkward pauses, gesturing could be just the help you’re looking for, researchers say.

Psychologist Frances Rauscher and her colleagues asked Columbia University students to watch a few minutes of a classic Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, and then describe the epic battle to a listener. Some the students were allowed to gesture while telling the story, while others were asked to keep their hands still. They discovered that students with immobile hands had a difficult time coming up with the words to describe spatial details from the story—such as where Roadrunner was when Coyote tipped a boulder over the cliff, and how Roadrunner sprinted out of harm’s way.

When the hands were forced into silence, the students’ stories were less fluent and filled with pauses and stumbles when it came to these spatial details. Gesturing didn’t seem to affect speech related to other parts of the story, but the researchers still saw the experiment as an example of how gestures can help the brain access the right words at the right time.

Scientists aren’t quite sure about how and where gestures and speech connect to each other in the circuitry of the brain, but plenty of research suggests that how you gesture (or don’t) can affect how you produce (or don’t) speech. In another study, another group of Columbia scientists watched a series of polished professional lecturers and undergraduates speaking, and noticed that both types of speakers rarely came down with a case of the “um, ah and er” when they gestured.

The common-sense idea, says lead researcher Nicolas Christenfeld, holds that gesturing is just “people groping for words by waving their hands.” But his study and others suggest that gestures are more often connected with fluent speech, rather than a sign of flailing around for the next phrase.

University of Alberta psychologist Elena Nicoladis saw this in action when she watched bilingual children gesturing as they told the same story twice, in both of their languages. She and her colleagues expected that the children would lean heavily on gesture to convey meanings that might be lost when they spoke in their “weaker” language.

But in fact, the gestures flowed more steadily when they told the story in their native language. Instead of gesturing to give meaning to their tale, Nicoladis believes the children may have been using gesture to help them recall the story and pick out the right words to tell it. "If you're in a situation where it's important to get the language out and you're having difficulty, it may help to start making gestures,” she says.

The next time you’re preparing for a speech, watch what your hands do as you talk. Do the words come a little easier when you go hands-free?

Editor's note: This launches a new series on The Eloquent Woman blog that will examine "speaking science," research from a wide range of disciplines that can help speakers better understand how, and why, certain techniques, environments and factors work for or against them. Science writer Becky Ham filed this report, and will be a regular contributor to the blog on this topic.

I'm delighted that this post is among those chosen as one of the best public speaking blog tips of the week on Andrew Dlugan's great Six Minutes blog. See his roundup here.

Related posts: How gestures contribute to your message

The origins of eloquence in a gesture

Be powerful with body language

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