I often give advice to my students on body language when they are preparing for oral presentations. One important aspect of body language is gestures: what we do with our hands and arms as we speak? Do we put them in our pockets, behind our backs, in front of ourselves, or what?

The convention wisdom these days is that the steeple gesture is the most positive and confident starting position for the hands and arms when making a presentation. The steeple gesture, in case you didn’t know, generally involves the tips of the fingers on each hand being held together and the hands in front of the body, as shown in the picture below.


The steeple gestures suggests a positive attitude, someone who is ready and willing to engage the audience. It conveys confidence and preparedness. Hands behind the back suggest: ‘too formal’ while hands in the pocket suggest: ‘too casual’.

When I introduce this gesture to my students, there is often a  mixed reaction. Some students simply love the gesture and spend much time practicing it. Others find it pretentious and choose instead to hold something in their hands such as a pencil or piece of paper. Other simply laugh and find it bemusing. Almost all agree though that something must be done with the hands to stop them ‘wandering’.

I have seen the gesture being used more and more on the television these days usually by news reporters and TV hosts. The other day I saw Andrew Neil using it on the BBC politics programme ‘This Week’ to open his show. He was sitting down but started (unusually perhaps for a seated person) with the steeple gesture. He made regular gestures to emphasise points but always returned to the steeple gestures. (See pictures below)


To Steeple or not to Steeple?

So the question remains: to steeple or not to steeple? Is this the best starting position for any presentation? Or is it limited to certain contexts and styles? One reason for using the gesture is to stop the hands ‘wandering’. Delivering a presentation uses cognitive resources and it is common to find that these resources are deployed elsewhere leaving the hands and arms to take on a life of their own! You might find them behind the neck, scratching the nose, cleaning the ear, or in many other places. It is only if and when the student reviews a video of themselves that the extent to which the hands and arms tend to wander becomes apparent.  By adopting a steeple gesture we avoid wandering hands.

By adopting a steeple gesture we avoid wandering hands.

But some people find it unnatural. We don’t normally put our hands in this position when talking informally so why should we do it during a presentation? Some people argue that the speaker should be allowed to find their own natural position. Read a student blog here which argues this point.

One thing that all tutors agree on is that we want to convert the random and nervous gestures of a presenter into positive and meaningful ones.

Convert the random and nervous gestures into positive and meaningful ones.