Do you talk with your hands? Do you have a friend or family member who does? Most of us use our arms and hands when we are telling a story or teaching something. This is called gesturing, and it’s one part of nonverbal communication. But did you know that not all gestures are created equal, especially if you are presenting to a diverse audience?

Experts tells us that gestures usually fall into two categories: speech illustrators and emblems. Dr. David Matsumoto is one of those experts. Matsumoto teaches psychology and directs the Culture and Emotion Research Lab at San Francisco State University. As an expert on nonverbal communication, he also works with companies like the FBI to help train others to read nonverbal communication. In an interview on “Speaking of Psychology” with Audrey Hamilton of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Matsumoto elaborates on the two types of gestures.

Speech Illustrators

Speech illustrators are probably what you think of first when you think of the way someone gestures during a presentation. They are the arm and hand motions we make when we are talking. Speech illustrators accompany and support our words the way tone of voice and facial expressions do. When you say the word “big” and stretch your hands out wide in front of you, that’s an illustrator. Or if you place your palm up in front of you while you are making a point, that’s an illustrator. We use these types of gestures to add to the meaning of our words.

Dr. Matsumoto tells us that speech illustrators are universal. In other words, all people, no matter where they are from, use these types of gestures to reinforce their speaking. If you are presenting and you tend to “talk with your hands,” your audience, even if they are culturally diverse, will understand most of what you are saying. Cultures might have different forms of using speech illustrators, like waving versus pointing, but all cultures use them for the same purpose, to assist in communication.


Emblems, however, are used to take the place of speech or to accompany specific words. Unlike speech illustrators, emblems tend to be more specific to culture. For example, in America someone might ask, “are you OK?” In response, it would be common for someone to respond by placing their thumb and forefinger together while raising their other three fingers to form the “OK” sign. However, people from Germany, Brazil, or Russia might interpret this gesture differently since it is offensive in their cultures.

Matsumoto says, “just as every culture has a verbal vocabulary – different verbal vocabulary – every culture creates a vocabulary of emblematic gestures that correspond to certain types of phrases that they think are important to have in a gesture.” Think of the ways you use your hands to stand in for words. If you are using emblems when you present in front of a diverse audience, there’s a chance that your gestures won’t translate.

Author Leonard Mlodinow says that “nonverbal ability bestows advantages in both personal and business life, and it plays a significant role in the perception of a person’s warmth, credibility, and persuasive power.” The more we understand gestures and the way they are used, the more power we have to communicate effectively when we stand up to present.

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