The method we have used in many investigations was developed some two decades ago in collaboration with Elena Levy (see McNeill and Levy 1982). Our method is to show a film or animated cartoon to subjects and have the subject retell the story to a listener immediately, from memory. The performance is thus storytelling. The subjects do not know that gestures are of interest (the experiment is described as about 'communication' or 'storytelling'). Nonetheless, the spoken narration is typically accompanied by spontaneous gestures, with no instructions to make gestures or any mention of gestures as a topic of interest. The gestures that occur, together with the narration itself, comprise the raw data of our investigation, and are recorded on videotape. We picked a cartoon stimulus partly because we wanted to use the method with children but it has proven useful with many other kinds of subjects - university students, speakers of other languages, speakers with neurological abnormalities, even deaf and blind subjects. The first results with this technique were presented in the aforementioned paper (McNeill & Levy, 1982).
Reasons for the storytelling method:
The cartoon/film narration method addresses a critical problem in the study of gesture, which has not always been noticed. If we use the content of speech to determine the meaning of a gesture, we are unable to see co-expressive speech and gesture; only redundant echoing is discernable. Having a known stimulus for the story provides a basis to interpret the gestures without relying on the speech content itself to interpret them (speech is only used to identify the event being described). This is important since it gives a non-circular basis for comparing the information content of speech and gesture. The circularity problem in part motivated our choice of the cartoon stimulus from the start.
Ultimately, the goal is to interpret gesture and speech without the
crutch of a known source, and this may now be possible in many cases,
since a sufficient knowledge of gesture and speech and how they work
together has been built up. Nonetheless, even though we could venture
forth and attempt to explain conversation, argumentation, instruction,
lectures, gossip, dinner conversation, and a host of other genres, most
of the examples in this work are from narrative discourse. Still,
selected cases of instruction, lecturing, and conversation will also be
A second advantage of having a known stimulus is that it makes possible event-by-event comparisons across speakers. It is possible to look at the same event and see how it appears in speech and gesture across languages (we have collected narrations in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese), ages (toddler to adult), and neurological condition (normals, aphasics, right hemisphere injured, split-brains, and the important IW case). The ability to have targeted comparisons is a powerful source of insights and, in itself, gives narrative data a special place.
We chose a 7 minute long animated color cartoon of the Tweety and Sylvester series ("Canary Row", ca. 1950). The choice was based on several factors that we thought made this specific cartoon suitable for storytellers of different ages, neurological conditions, and language groups - it uses little speech, the plot line is linear and repetitive yet varies widely on the surface from episode to episode, it contains a high concentration of motion, and it is comparatively brief. Our intuitions have been validated over the years, in that we have obtained excellent retellings from non-native participants, including some who were very new to the culture at the time of taping (within weeks of arrival), as well as from children and various kinds of neurological patients. We have also used a full-length film as a narrative stimulus, an early Hitchcock (Blackmail), which is suitable obviously only with adults. In contrast to cartoon retellings, the film evokes a high proportion of metaphoric gestures (see the descriptions in Hand and Mind).
We show the cartoon stimulus either as a whole (unimpaired adults) or in 2 or 3 parts, and ask the subject to immediately recount the story to a listener who had not seen the cartoon, from memory. (Blackmail is shown straight through.) We employ true listeners, not confederates. The instructions frame the experiment as dealing with storytelling; there is no mention of gesture. The retelling performance, which in the case of the cartoon may last anywhere from a minute to ten minutes and in the case of Blackmail may last up to an hour, is recorded on videotape. This tape recording is the raw data for all our investigations.