Advice on the use of gestures in presentation skills manuals: alignment between theory, research and instruction

Keywords: body language, deictics, gesture, iconics, metaphorics, beats, presentation skills


There appears to be a weak alignment between manuals on using hand gestures in oral presentations, theoretical sources on gesture production, and empirical studies on dimensions of gesture processing and use. Much of the advice in presentation skills manuals centre on prohibitions regarding undesirable postures and gestures. Furthermore, these sources tend to focus on the intentions, feelings and mental states of the speakers as well as the psychological effect of gestures on the audience. Theoretical sources, on the other hand, typically emphasise the relationship between speech and gestures, and the mental processing of the latter, especially representational gestures. Quasi-experimental empirical research studies, in turn, favour the description and analysis of iconic and metaphorical gestures, often with specific reference to gesturing in the retelling of cartoon narratives. The purpose of this article is to identify main areas of misalignment between practical, theoretical and empirical sources, and provide pointers on how the advice literature could align guidelines on gesture use with theory and research. First, I provide an overview of pertinent gesture theories, followed by a discussion of partially canonised typologies that describe gestures in relation to semiotic gesture types, handedness (left, right or both hands), salient hand shapes and palm orientation, movement, and position in gesture space. Subsequently, I share the results of a qualitative analysis of the advice on gesture use in 17 manuals on presentation skills. I then report on an analysis of the co-speech gestures in a corpus of 17 video-recorded audio-visual presentations by students of Theology. The article is concluded by proposing an outline for advice on gestures that is based on a considered integration of traditional advice in guide books and websites, theory, and empirical research.