Chicken Dance Hands and The First Name Game: Norman Doors of Communications

Gary Bartos
6 min readApr 17, 2024

Doors that have labels explaining whether to push and/or pull are everywhere. Norman doors! Once you know what a Norman door is, you can’t unlearn that knowledge.

Learning about Norman doors is like stepping into the story of Alice in Blunderland. A world of bad design is all around us!

A glass door with bars on the front and back, seen from a viewpoint outside a building. A vertical sign reading “PULL” is installed over the pull bar. Someone exiting the building would encounter the pull bar, but would have to push.
From the delightful article about Norman doors on 99percentinvisible.org

You don’t need to be a professional designer to recognize bad door designs.

Similarly, you don’t need to be a professional speaker to recognize bad “design” in everyday communications. Like Norman doors, once you know these bad communication practices and observer them in the wild, you can’t unknow them.

One bad communication practice bugged me so much I stopped watching a video about software development to write this post. Because I just can’t stand the use of…

Chicken Dance Hands

Does a presenter use their hands naturally while speaking, or are they following a chicken dance of prescribed hand motions?

Thank you, Wikipedia image, for reminding us what enforced fun looks like.

Does the presenter keep their hands above their waist at all times? Whose weird idea was it to keep your hands above your waist during a presentation?

An image of just the torso of a man in a suit, his hands steepled in front of him in what is meant to be a “power” gesture or some other such hogwash.
Is this person giving a lecture about quadrilaterals?

Try this: when you watch a public speaker, take a few moments to watch the speaker’s hands.

Do the speaker’s hands move upwards at odd times? In this screenshot from the video that inspired me to write this post, the speaker pulled his hands apart and moved them up as he said “…using a concept…”

Close-up of a video presenter’s hands in front of their body, in the process of moving upward.
Is this a culturally consistent gesture for “concept?”

Unless a speaker is talking about plate tectonics, then the gesture below isn’t fitting. The gesture is either practiced and weird, or clumsy and weird.

The speaker’s hands, fingers together and thumbs up, moving together like a sliding glass door.

Pointing, on the other hand, is natural and meaningful. People may not see your pointing gesture, but those who can see you pointing will understand the gesture. Look at that! Hey, you! or Check out this thing!

Singer Janella Monaé pointing at someone who isn’t visible in the image.
Some lucky person was pointed at by Janelle Monaé.

If your words and gestures are harmonious and meaningful, you’ll help make your spoken communications accessible and engaging to people with sensory impairments such as sight loss and/or hearing loss.

And if you’re gonna Vanna White with your hands, keep it simple. Simplicity and consistency are good.

Vanna White holding her hand under the letters A, B, C on a Wheel of Fortune letter grid.
A, B, C easy as 1, 2, 3

If it’s natural for you to stalk the stage like comedian Chris Rock, do so.

Or consider how Kunail Nanjiani does not stalk the stage, but uses natural gestures.

A comedian like Josh Johnson can sit on a stool or stand in place and keep an audience riveted.

Hannah Gadsby moves and gestures a bit, but not too much.

Check out Steve Jobs, a guy who succeeded wildly in selling rectangular electronic widgets to many millions of people, and yet…

  • Jobs was not excitable
  • He was not exciting
  • His presentations were looong
  • He would put his hands behind his back, wipe his nose, speak in a monotone for long stretches, and commit other such heinous acts of everyday humanity

Jobs practiced his presentations a lot. He and his team put a lot of work into making the show work.

And what towering figure spoke in a gentle monotone, without making big hand gestures, and could keep audiences riveted as he sat still in front of a microphone? Mister Fred Rogers.

Could I tell you the words of one of the songs which I feel is very important?

Who could have said “no” to Fred Rogers asking that question?

If you have a tendency to fidget, redirect your busy hands so that they make some distinctive, meaningful gesture that shows off a bit of your personality. Just don’t mimic the Chicken Hand Dance gesture-by-numbers of the multitude of forgettable presenters.

Figure out how what gestures are comfortable for you— or could become comfortable for you over time — and use those gestures instead. Rather, let the gestures happen. To be genuine is to be honest.

Honesty applies to one-on-one conversations, too.

The First Name Game

Salesperson Pat and I met three minutes ago, and now my first name is the guest of honor in every sentence Pat speaks.

“Gary, let me tell you about this great previously owned luxury sedan. The value of this vehicle, Gary, is that…”

Pat must have heard that a customer will be more pliable if the customer’s first name is tossed into sentences as frequently as possible.

It’s true, right?!? Didn’t some study quoted in some book mentioned by the guest speaker at that 2007 sales conference Pat attended prove that The First Name Game works?

One of the many problems with tricks like The First Name Game is that if the intended victim spots the attempt at manipulation, the Game has the opposite effect: instead of a win it’s a turnoff.

Like a Norman door, a bad communication strategy is even more annoying once you’ve learned to spot it. When you identify that someone is playing The First Name Game, you can push back.

“Stop using my first name in every sentence. It’s annoying, and the price I’m willing to pay just dropped.”

Rather than play The First Name Game, it would have been less annoying if Pat had said, “I’d like to sell you a five-year-old car for $22,000 before you leave here today. We can make a fair deal.”

Hu Are You? Your von Restorffed Self vs. The Bland Multitudes

In design books you can read about the von Restorff Effect, which I’ll summarize as “what is unusual is memorable.”

If you saw fifteen gray and dark blue cars, in the midst of which was a bright yellow panel van blasting the music of The Hu, you’d remember the yellow The Hu van and not Generic Car #7 of 15.

Seriously, listen to The Hu.

Some self-described experts on public speaking will provide a list of rules for you to follow.

Rules that address nervous habits that distract from your presentation are worth considering. Rules that guide you to look and act like other presenters are questionable. And rules that emphasize “powerful” gestures, or that imply that the audience will be swayed by Chicken Dance Hands, can be ignored without further consideration.

We can be fooled to follow by authority figures handing down prescriptive rules such as “Keep your hands above your waist.” We can also be deceived by trends we observe, such as the number of presenters in YouTube videos speaking about ChatGPT or macroeconomics while their hands talk about tectonic plates. For a few years we might fall prey to The First Name Game and buy a car we didn’t want that badly.

But once we spot these and other Norman doors of communication, we won’t be fooled again.

Hands forming shapes to mimic how tectonic plates interact.
Tectonic plate hands! Used properly this time!

Read the Book!

Donald Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things is a classic book of design. It’s short, it’s clear, and it may change your life.

If you’ve lived happily until today without knowing about Norman doors, Chicken Hand Dance, and The First Name Game, then I’m sorry and you’re welcome.

--

--

Gary Bartos

Founder of Echobatix, engineer, inventor of assistive technology for people with disabilities. Keen on accessible gaming. echobatix@gmail.com