It happened again last week, and it made me madder than usual. A whip-smart, socially skilled mid-level associate at a major law firm arrived at a communication coaching and confided that she had been taught not to gesture. In law school she had been instructed to speak by placing her hands straight down at her sides, or alternatively, clutching a lectern. Though this made her feel uncomfortable, she had persevered for several years, coping with the resulting awkward style. She was hoping I could help her become comfortable not talking with her hands. She seemed to be searching for a cure for a mysterious affliction.
The problem is, there is nothing to cure. She is normal. Like people the world over who gesture when they speak, she does, too. Had she been encouraged to speak normally in law school, she would be fine now. No, she would be much better than fine, she would most likely be a top performer with glowing evaluations.
Her affliction was caused by bad teaching. The notion that people shouldn’t talk with their hands is rooted in out of date, fact-free teaching, and it is affecting her career. Of all professions, you’d think lawyering would produce the most well-spoken graduates. But too many have been sold a bill of goods, and taught to stand like robots.
My job is to help lawyers think clearly, and then speak fluently and persuasively. Ideally, these two actions should happen almost simultaneously, as lawyers talk to clients, juries, boards of directors, or city councils. They must be able to think effectively while they answer difficult or surprising questions from the bench, clients, and nowadays, sometimes reporters. They must discuss complicated issues and make them clear for laypeople. In courtrooms, they choose specific (and unnatural) grammar and syntax on the fly, and respond to objections from opposing counsel. Nobody is born doing that. They all had to learn it.
Not that lawyers can’t already talk—of course they can. Saying I teach lawyers to talk is a punch line of sorts, good for dinner party banter. But sometimes it isn’t so funny, like when I’m facing another hamstrung lawyer.
In professional legal speech, there is a higher standard. Unfortunately, the law has been infected with a mistaken notion that good public speaking means not talking with your hands.
Which brings me back to why I was so mad last week. My brilliant coachee had been instructed in this mistaken notion of talking with arms and hands glued to rib cage, outer hips, and sides of thighs. The week before last, I’d heard that a moot court coach at one law school had enforced a “hands gripping the lectern” rule. At a trial skills program just a few weeks earlier, another faculty member had instructed participants to ignore my advice to gesture, and remain standing, cadaver-like, for the duration of an opening statement. (Juries love this.) My student and I howled with laughter at the resulting video of him looking exactly like a cheap metal robot from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Frankenlaw. Lawbot.
To get over my frustration, here I offer science-based advice:
People don’t invent language standing like stone statues. They need their supple, talented, conjuring hands to move and flow, coordinating perfectly with words and ideas. Gesturing hands are the closest thing to magic a speaker can achieve.
If you are in law school now, wondering how you’ll make a living when you graduate, wouldn’t it help if you could speak well, and maybe jump ahead of some of the competition? It could make the difference between working as an attorney and driving your cousin’s food truck.
I have no idea who these gesture-denying law professors are. I never ask for names because I don’t want to know where or from whom this ludicrous idea comes. My theory is that telling students to stop gesturing solves a problem for the instructor, who is confronted with an uncomfortable-looking speaker. Nervous speakers tend to move their hands and arms in an awkward, stiff and distracting manner. The typical law professor does not have a scintilla of knowledge about the hard science of gesture, so they don’t know how to teach their students to stop this weird behavior. They have only legal folk-wisdom that their students “shouldn’t wave their hands.” You didn’t go to law school to learn folklore, and people in other professions aren’t infected with this ridiculous idea. Such utter nonsense is refuted by modern science. Instead of helping their students speak with natural gesture, law professors try to get rid of those pesky limbs by instructing students to just hang onto the lectern. But that non-
solution triggers a cascade of problems for the poor speaker, who is now prevented from using her most productive tool for speaking—her naturally flowing, gesturing hands.
Last week two practicing lawyers told me that they had been told in law school that gesture was undesirable while speaking in court. To this I ask, has anybody been in court lately and watched a judge speak? An experienced lawyer? Unless their hands are actually tied to their bodies with ropes, they are all talking with their hands, in spite of what listeners assume is happening. (Listeners are all looking elsewhere—at their faces, and more specifically, their eyes.)
And as for the law professors who told you not to gesture, they are not only gesturing while they teach, they are most likely gesturing while giving you the instruction not to gesture. This week only, I have a special introductory price for law professors on Gesture 101.