Coyote and Roadrunner were the original action heroes. Their show had falling anvils, rocket cars, exploding kegs of TNT and anything else Coyote could order from Acme to catch that beep-and-run bird. I’ve always had a soft spot for Coyote, but maybe Roadrunner had the best strategy: keep moving.
When some people speak, they grip the podium 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 the minimum amount 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 describe the epic battle to a listener. Some the students were allowed to gesture while telling the story while others had to keep their hands still.
Rauscher 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 a cliff, and how Roadrunner sprinted out of harm’s way.
When students forced their hands to be still, they told the story less fluently, and filled it with pauses and stumbles when describing 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 how and where gestures and speech connect to each other in the brain’s circuitry, but plenty of research suggests how you gesture (or don’t) can affect how you produce speech (or don’t).
In another study, another group of Columbia scientists watched a series of polished professional lecturers and undergraduates speak. The scientists noticed that both types of speakers rarely came down with a case of the “ums, ahs and ers” when they gestured.
The common-sense idea, says lead researcher Nicolas Christenfeld, is that gesturing is just “people groping for words by waving their hands.” But his study and others suggest gestures are more often connected with fluent speech than flailing around for the next phrase.
Elena Nicoladis, a University of Alberta psychologist, saw this in action when she watched bilingual children gesture as they told the same story twice—once in both of their languages. Nicoladis and her colleagues expected the children to lean heavily on gestures to convey meanings that might be lost when they spoke in their “weaker” languages. But instead the gestures flowed more steadily when the children told the story in their native languages. Instead of gesturing to give meaning to their tale, Nicoladis believes the children may have been using gestures 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 prepare for a speech, watch what your hands do as you talk. Do the words come a little easier when you gesture?