Talk With Your Hands

In the last few years TED conferences have come to represent the top rung for "intellectual rock stars." What began as a small annual talk series in the early 1990's, has ballooned into an international sensation since they began providing videos online in 2006. It's a remarkable powerhouse that has made data experts like Hans Rosling a household name. TED now comes with legions of fans, people willing to pay several thousand dollars for the privilege of sitting in the audience, a fellowship program (a shining example), and even a "play along in your hometown" version called TEDx.

TED is not without critics, as with all successful endeavors. The founder of TED is no longer involved, and is trying to "reinvent conferences again". Here's an interesting review of the growing  "intellectual populism" that TED is contributing to; not necessarily a bad thing, but it's interesting.


One thing that I have taken away from watching a fair number of TED talks since 2006, as well as watching the late Steve Jobs speak, is the value in being a seriously good public speaker. There's a lot involved in making a great talk, from slide design and composition (a recent post I wrote on the importance of contrast in slides for Visually), to speaking tone, pace, inflection, and body language.

Recently I noticed something about the thumbnails shown for TED videos: the frame chosen from the talk seemed to usually feature people gesturing with both hands.

Gesturing with your hands is very normal when you talk, especially when you're giving a lecture or speech. Funny or unusual hand motions when talking can become iconic (I've always loved Dana Carvey's George Bush Sr. impression for this). Good hand motions can even help you convey your authority or confidence when talking, which is absolutely an asset.

I wondered, looking at a few dozen of these thumbnails, how many hands do people typically gesture with in TED talk thumbnails?

So, consumate scientist that I am, I gathered some data!

I pulled up the thumbnail previews for all 1,409 TED videos. For each thumbnail I recorded a 0, 1, or 2, indicating how many hands I thought the person shown was gesturing with. Some frames did not have a person, which was given a 0.

The cataloging was highly subjective (obviously), as well as biased. For example, in some talks people have laser pointers, in others they hold a microphone. In a few they stand behind lecterns, and recently they wear a headset mic leaving both hands free. One could improve the subjectivity by having many people repeat the exercise of choosing [0,1,2] for each frame (Mechanical Turk, anyone?)

Once I had all 1,409 videos pulled up, I could also trivially grab some other statistics. For instance: the median TED talk video is 15:38 long


Also interesting, though not surprising as the TED franchise grows: the rate of TED videos is increasing, with 6.04 being published every week in 2012 on average.

As my initial observation suggested: the most common posture is using both hands to gesture, though it's not an overwhelming majority of frames.


Finally, and most perplexing to me: in 2012 the rate of people using both hands to gesture (again, in the TED video thumbnails) is increasing!

So the message: if you want to be a TED-quality speaker, talk with your hands, both of them even!

A template TED video thumbnail: use both hands when you talk!


That's it for If We Assume, 2012. It's been a wild ride so far, and a total blast. 2013 here I come!

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