Opinion and Editorial

This one thing will help you do better on Zoom

Nick Morgan
Filed on March 3, 2021

Think of the head shake that accompanies a verbal ‘no’, for example, as a way of showing that there can be no further negotiation on that particular subject.

What are gestures really for? When we speak, most of us wave our hands around in ways that we don’t think about consciously very much, if at all. Do those gestures have meaning? If so, how do they help or hurt our ability to express ourselves on video calls?

There are a lot of misunderstandings about hand gestures. Most people think about them in terms of the relatively few gestures that are emblematic, such as a hand wave, the outward facing palm or (in some cultures) a ‘thumb’s up’. But most gestures accompany and amplify speech rather than conveying specific meanings like speech itself. These gestures serve to emphasiSe, or clarify, or intensify our words.

Think of the head shake that accompanies a verbal ‘no’, for example, as a way of showing that there can be no further negotiation on that particular subject. The speaker might say no while looking down, drawing the eyebrows in and down to express regret, and shaking the head slightly. All of that body language serves to hint to the listener that this denial is final, with regret perhaps, but final.

Another whole category of gesture is particularly important to help us understand what is being said. Researchers call these beat gestures, and their main purpose seems to be to emphasise certain syllables of words to aid in understanding what word is meant. Sometimes, the emphasis of one syllable over another changes the meaning or the part of speech (for example, Plato v plateau) and it turns out that we are likely to make a hand gesture on the key syllable. Researchers believe that this sort of signalling is an important part of comprehension especially when there is a lot of surrounding noise, as in a restaurant.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of these gestures in particular because so much communication these days is via video conferences. Most people sit down when they connect to their video conference, and as a result, their hands disappear somewhere underneath the bottom end of the screen, never to be seen again during the meeting.

Given that you are typically not getting full-spectrum sound at the receiving end of the video, because of the built-in inadequacy of the speakers and microphones on computers and laptops, what you are saying (and hearing) may be harder to understand than your in-person speech. So pity the person on the receiving end of your brilliant comments if your speech is harder to comprehend and deprived of your usual beat gestures to help decode what you are saying.

The result can be both quite fatiguing and confusing if the meeting is long, there are multiple interruptions as one person talks over another, and the distractions of the room you are actually in make it hard to continue to pay attention to the virtual room.

It’s a wonder that anything gets communicated at all!

Other sorts of gestures that researchers recognise include deictic gestures and lexical gestures. The former include pointing (this pile, not that pile) and the latter include gestures like crossing your arms and shivering while saying that you are cold.

Of all these categories, the last one is perhaps the least essential, since they usually echo specific words, but all these categories of gesture are useful in aiding comprehension in speech. Thus removing them effectively while on Zoom will challenge the other meeting-goers and make it harder for them to attend to what you are saying.

Gesturing is good. Gesturing helps aid emphasis, conviction, and comprehension. Don’t arbitrarily remove them from your communications while on video conferences. Rather, use them even more vigorously to help your audience understand and believe you.

— Psychology Today

Nick Morgan is president of Public Words Inc, a communications consulting company, and the author of books, including Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.

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