From the Lab: Not All Gestures Are Created Equal

In The Science of Speaking, I note that there are several different kinds of gestures: descriptive, organizational, and emphatic. While gestures in general can be quite beneficial, research has revealed that not all are created equal.

For example, in two studies by Woodall and Folger, they found that gestures which had a specific meaning (i.e., descriptive and organizational gestures) were significantly more effective than emphatic gestures. In the first study, in which listeners were immediately asked to remember what they’d heard, they recalled 34% of a message when it was accompanied by a descriptive gesture, 11% when it was accompanied by an emphatic gesture, and only 5% when it wasn’t accompanied by a gesture. In the second study, when listeners were asked to remember what they’d heard a week later, they recalled 37% of a message when it was accompanied by a descriptive gesture, and only 7% when it was accompanied by an emphatic gesture or no gesture. Later studies have confirmed these findings.

Other studies have suggested that we intuitively understand this. For example, in a study that compared the gestures we make when speaking face-to-face compared to those we make when speaking to someone behind a screen, researchers found that some gestures (“representational gestures”) are produced only for the benefit of others (i.e., in the face-to-face condition), while others (“beat gestures”) are produced even when we know they won’t be seen. As it turns out, the gestures we produce for the benefit of others are the same gestures that will actually benefit them.

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