Gesture is part of our everyday life—whether talking to a colleague by the coffee maker, presenting to a client in a meeting, or presenting a case to a jury—we talk with our hands; everybody does so more or less. And sometimes we think with our hands as well. I had a vivid experience last month that proves this to be true.

I invite you to be the proverbial fly on the wall as I’m working one-on-one with a third-year associate at a law firm on the east coast. We’re speaking about his unique practice so I can understand his communication challenges, observe his personal style, and analyze how he speaks and gestures in professional conversation.

Dan tells me that he is completely unaware of his gestures, and confesses that he isn’t sure if he ever gestures at all. Even as he says that, he gestures regularly. It has never occurred to him be aware of his gestures. Many of the lawyers who coach with me say the same thing. Yet developing that awareness is important if you wish to be a more fluent and confident speaker. You can’t be yourself, especially when speaking under pressure in high-stakes situations, if you don’t know yourself.

As we chat, Dan uses an unconscious gesture that embodies the interconnection between thinking, gesturing, and speaking. We are discussing the challenge of inertia as a speaker. We agree that it can be difficult to get things going at the very start, but after a couple minutes the words begin to flow. Dan weighs in with this observation:

“It gets easier, because once you start speaking you get some…”

He stops momentarily as his brain searches for the right word to complete the thought. Before his lips can form the word, his brain and then his gesture find it for him.

In real time, the gesture I am about to describe flashes past in two seconds. In order for you to see what is about to happen in your mind’s eye, imagine you are viewing this action in slow motion, like the slow-motion catch of a leaping outfielder in a baseball game. As they say, let’s go to the video replay,

“It gets easier, because once you start speaking you get some…”

At this moment Dan’s right hand leaps into action to help him find the word he’s looking for. It rises to about shoulder height and inscribes in the air a small bump. With a flick of the wrist, palm down, his right hand smoothly glides upward and then slides back down gaining speed as it does so. [To fully grasp this, try it yourself.] In the blink of an eye his fleeting gesture not only demonstrates the scientific principle of inertia and its opposite, but it invokes the word he’s looking for. His lips take their cue from his gesture and finish the sentence, saying,

“It gets easier, because once you start speaking you get some… momentum.”

That is what his gesture accurately demonstrated—momentum. His hand rose upward and then gained momentum on a descending glide path, like a ball rolling down a hill. Dan had no clue he had gestured this way. After I described and demonstrated it, he recalled that it had happened, “You’re right, I did that.”

As a guy who wasn’t even sure that he gestured, he was thoroughly amazed that his brain and hand unconsciously collaborated on a quick mini-demonstration of the scientific principle of inertia and momentum. Only then did he find and say the word. Perhaps this is less surprising when you learn that Dan is an I.P. lawyer with a scientific background.

Gesture research has revealed this surprising link between thinking, gesturing, and then speaking—not always, but sometimes in that order. I find it endlessly fascinating to think that our brains collaborate with our gestures to get out in front of our voices, assembling thoughts and searching for the right words to articulate them.

diagram showing how speech, thinking and gesturing are connected

If you want to be well spoken, trust and liberate your instinct to gesture. But don’t think about it too much! Don’t interfere with that deeply embedded, highly creative, thoroughly unconscious instinct. Spend the rest of today being more aware of how much you gesture in conversation. A little? A lot? You need to know the answer.