One thing that is not part of our commonsense understanding of how our minds work is the importance of the motor system (movement) to our thinking.

We tend to think of movement and brainwork as two separate things. I reach for the glass of water when I’m thirsty; I think about my next chess move with my mind.

In fact, though, neuroscience uncovers new connections between our motor system and our thinking minds every day. A recent study found that if we gesture when we’re trying to learn a foreign language we’ll remember better than if we don’t. Make a flapping gesture while saying the word for duck, and it’s imprinted somewhere in the mind.

It reminds me of learning French in the third grade, and having to gesture bouncing a ball while saying in unison, “la balle.” The teacher was right to make us do that.

But the importance of gesture goes much deeper than merely learning a new word. The trouble is that it’s incredibly hard for us to notice what we’re doing, and so most of us are not aware of how important gesture is. In fact, we normally don’t think at all—at least, in the casual sense of the word think—about where we are in space, how we’re gesturing, or what kind of impression we’re making on the people around us as we wave our hands and talk. Most of that activity is left to our unconscious minds most of the time.

So when we do think consciously about such things, it’s very distracting. Precisely because these chores are normally left to our unconscious minds, when we make them conscious, they tend to drive out other thoughts.

It’s virtually impossible to monitor where you are in space, keep track of all your hand gestures, focus on the people around you, and keep up a steady flow of witty and to-the-point conversation, all at the same time.

We may think consciously about body language on rare occasions, noticing when someone touches us or suddenly moves very close to us, but that kind of awareness is intermittent and brief and created by unusual body language, rather than the ordinary stuff. Constant self-monitoring is too difficult for most of us most of the time.

But is it necessary? Why can’t we leave that monitoring to the unconscious where it’s usually resides? Unfortunately, the answer is that we do have to develop some way of consciously creating the right kinds of body language in ourselves, especially in moments of great importance, because leaving it to chance won’t work. We’re far too likely to make two critical mistakes if we leave things to the gods.

First mistake? You’ll project your nervousness and fail to command at the key moments of opportunity. Say you’re heading into a key meeting, one on one, with your boss. The topic is your salary and, particularly, whether or not it should be raised.

There’s a lot riding on the meeting, so you’re nervous. If you just leave your body language to chance, then you’re going to convey your nervousness to your boss. Unless she’s completely clueless and lacking in negotiation skills, she’ll register that nervousness, read it as weakness or perhaps that you don’t think you deserve the raise, and act accordingly. You’ll be far less likely to get the money you were hoping for.

The second mistake you’re likely to make, if you leave your body language to chance, is that you’ll just convey a typical person’s typically distracted state of mind. When you let your mind wander on an ordinary day, you might think about your to-do list, picking up milk on the way home, the TV show you saw last night, how sleepy you are, how you’re not making any progress on your New Year’s resolution to lose fifteen pounds, how annoying your office mate’s voice is—all in the space of a few seconds.

If you walk into your boss’s office thinking about all of that, your body language will reflect that mental list and it will be as diffuse as your mind. You will not be charismatic, powerful, or focused. Once again, your chances of getting the raise will be small to nil.

It’s time to replace your commonsense thinking about gesture with the hard work of self-awareness. It’s not just about salary negotiations, of course; people (and public speakers) who want to show up with power and charisma take note. It’s about any moment or situation when we can’t leave the impression we make to chance because the stakes are high.

When are those moments for you? And are you leaving them to chance?







  1. Good morning Nick.

    I can recall my first speech and the only thing that moved was my lips. I stood rigid, a statue with moving lips. It was many speeches later I was able to bring arms, hands and in time legs into my speech. I have specific hand gestures I use for a speech on fear for example and the feedback is that it is very effective and powerful

    You are of course right in that, all important communication, one to one or one to a hundred or more cannot be left to chance or the unconscious. I am presently reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt where he uses the metaphor of the rider, our conscious mind and the elephant our unconscious mind, both have to work together. An elephant without the rider will happily wander. Our facial expressions speak before we do and how powerful a smile is.

    I will consciously open a speech with a smile, a pause and I have predetermined gestures and movement. I feel the practice that goes into a speech gives confidence and that provides me with an overall feeling of relaxation.

    Thank you as always.
    John Keating


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