Trump's hands speak -- what do they say?

What Trump's hand gestures tell us about him
What Trump's hand gestures tell us about him

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What Trump's hand gestures tell us about him 02:45

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  • Vanessa Van Edwards: In our study, we found that talking with your hands might be the best power gesture you have -- and no one knows this better than President Donald Trump

Vanessa Van Edwards is a behavioral investigator and author of the book Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. She runs a human behavior research lab called the Science of People. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Immediately after he was sworn into office on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump prepared to address the United States of America for the first time as President. Before he uttered a single word into the microphone, he already had signaled to the nation that his optimism about the future. How?

With a big thumbs-up -- a nonverbal signal in the United States for "all good here."
Vanessa Van Edwards
After that initial thumbs-up in his address, he went on to use an additional 640 more hand gestures in his speech.
As a behavioral investigator, I know that President Trump's body language played as large a role in the election as his actual words. And because an inaugural address is a president's first impression to the nation, I wanted to know if I could learn anything from presidential inaugural addresses throughout history. These moments say a lot about each president's personal brand.
And so, my lab, The Science of People, embarked on a study to analyze every presidential inaugural address from Trump to Truman. My team and I watched video of each address from 1949 to 2017 and coded them for body language patterns, hand gestures and context cues. We also partnered with Quantified Communications to do a detailed comparison of each speech's verbal content.
One of the key features we looked for in the inauguration videos was the number of hand gestures each President used. Hand gestures are a powerful way for speakers to build trust with their audience.
In our study, we found that talking with your hands might be the best power gesture you have -- and no one knows this better than President Trump. On average, a president uses 152 hand gestures in their inaugural address. In his 17-minute inauguration speech, Trump used a total of 641 hand gestures, 4.2 times more than the average.
That translates to approximately 38 gestures every minute, emphasizing the importance of every statement he made with his hands at least once. Trump was closely followed by Barack Obama, who used 612 hand gestures in his second inaugural address.
Here were Trump's most popular gestures and what signals they sent to audiences:
  • Pointing at the audience. When someone points at us we pay attention. This is a signaling gesture and makes people pay attention.
  • A-okay. With this gesture, the forefinger and thumb touch to create a circle and the other three fingers are straight. In the United States this indicates 'everything is fine' or 'all is well.' It is a subtly positive gesture.
  • Pointing up. He frequently pointing toward the sky. This could subtly indicate, along with his words, that he is aiming to achieve big goals and that he wants things to improve.
  • The fist. In several instances, Trump used a fist gesture -- this typically indicates strength and resolve. This is because we tend to make a fist when we are angry or determined.
  • Thumbs up. Trump frequently gave the audience a thumbs up gesture. Again, in the United States this conveys optimism.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both clocked in at zero hand gestures each. They were possibly deterred from using hand gestures during their addresses because of a large podium blocking their body from viewers. This would have made it harder for them to convey ideas and connect to the audience.
So why do hand gestures matter? Studies show that leaders who use hand gestures are perceived as more likeable by their followers than those who do not. This is because hand gestures are a way for speakers to connect with audiences visually, as well as verbally.
Hands are also crucial to how comfortable we are around others. Research indicates hand gestures are an important part of our charisma. In one study, participants who used more hand gestures got better ratings by job evaluators.
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Throughout the campaign, observers in the media and elsewhere called Trump out for the quantity of hand gestures. This was no accident. In fact, the more hand gestures he used, the more he was able to increase his likeability nonverbally. Hand gestures help us more effectively communicate our ideas, explain points and make connection.
We like to write off nonverbal cues as accessories or extras. But I have spent my career learning the subtle science of what makes people engaging, and I know firsthand that body language can affect our perceptions of anybody -- especially a President.