Virtual meeting 101: Body language tips for Zoom, Teams, and life

There are many ways individuals can level up their nonverbal communication to maximize this limited space. Here are tips from a leadership presence coach.

video conference

IMAGE: iStock/fizkes

In our day-to-day lives, our body language and other nonverbal cues emit a host of information to others. These signals provide key insights about our mood, thoughts, and emotions. In the age of the virtual conference room, nonverbal cues often speak louder than our words.

Over the last few months, many organizations have quickly transitioned from the traditional office to the virtual workplace due to the coronavirus. At first, this sudden transformation was seen as a temporary public safety solution during the pandemic, however, in recent weeks a number of organizations are embracing the digital workspace long term. To enable collaboration with a workforce of telecommuters, companies are leveraging a host of technologies; especially video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Needless to say, these virtual meetings often leave much to be desired and the limited parameters of the platform can set the stage for miscommunication and indeterminacy. While a virtual meeting of talking heads may lack the richness of communication and body language inherent in face-to-face interactions, there are many ways individuals can level up their nonverbal communication to maximize this limited space.

SEE: Video teleconferencing do's and don'ts (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Make a lasting digital impression

"In 'real life,' we have seven full seconds to make that first impression," said international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach, Carol Kinsey Goman. "So people are watching the way you enter the room. If you shake hands with them, they get that incredible power of touch, which is our oldest and most primitive and most powerful nonverbal signal. And they can gauge your intent a lot by your handshake. You can look at them really in the eyes, and smile as you make eye contact. They also see those first initial hand gestures that you make." 

In a video conference, most if not all of this information is wholly lost in digital translation. Rather than being able to absorb this plethora of visual and, at times, tactile information, meeting participants are limited to the information and cues other participants provide.

Set the stage

In a virtual meeting, the webcam is a person's window to the world. The distance between the speaker and the camera will either limit or maximize the amount of space a person has to communicate and emit nonverbal information. 

If the camera is positioned very close to a participant, they appear as a mere talking head in the Zoom room. In this instance, the only clue other participants have into the speaker's feelings are facial cues, and of course, their words. Positioning the camera in a way that allows others to view your torso and arms will help make better use of this space.

Know your limits

Simply put, virtual meetings require a unique set of upfront spatial considerations. It's imperative to be mindful of the camera when gesturing, as there's plenty of room for error in this limited space.

"On the screen, what you want to remember is, when you gesture too big, your hands go out of the screen and that becomes very annoying. When you gesture and you move your hand toward the screen, it becomes this giant thing," Goman said.

Goman suggests using gestures but to keep them in line of sight where others can see them and without the signal itself becoming the focal point of your delivery. Individuals may need to envision a three-dimensional bubble immediately to the front and peripheral and work within these confines.

"I encourage people to use gestures, but keep them where people can see them. Keep them either in the square of your body or slightly out and toward you. So if I put up two fingers and say, there's two things that we're going to discuss today. It's closer to my shoulder than it is to the screen, so that people see that," Goman said.

Practice posture

In a typical virtual meeting, most individuals are only speaking for a small portion of this time. As a result, a person's nonverbal communication is what others are absorbing the vast majority of the video chat. Maintaining proper posture is a fundamental part of crafting a more refined presence in a virtual setting.

"Keep your shoulders back. If you can bring your arms out slightly so that you don't look like you're making tiny little gestures, that'll make you look more confident. And you want to look warm and empathetic," Goman said.

Goman said she uses a particular chair to help her maintain good posture on camera. It may seem like a minor detail, but bad posture can leave a lasting negative impact on a person's overall career trajectory. 

"Women, by the way, make a posture mistake more than men. We tend to condense our bodies, make ourselves look littler than we are, which really works against the leadership presence on Zoom or in-person," Goman said.

Remember, a video call is not simply being physically present and speaking in turn. The entire meeting requires the same listening, participation, and nonverbal interactions typical of standard in-person meetings. Something as small as leaning forward or withdrawing and leaning back relays powerful information about our internal feelings in these situations.

"Leaning slightly forward sends a positive sign of engagement. We lean back or pull back from people and things and ideas that we're not particularly on board with," Goman said.

Think about the impression you want to make

Without the richness of communication and visuals present in a traditional in-person meeting, the margin for miscommunication and misunderstanding increases virtually. It's imperative that individuals consider the impression they want to make and utilize their nonverbal cues to match this intent.

"My clients who are executives, leaders, speakers, they have a particular impression they're going for. They want to look professional. They want to look confident. They want to look competent," Goman said.

However, posturing and gesturing to deliver an air of authority may not be appropriate in all meeting formats. At times, this approach could actually be counterproductive. Situationally, a softer approach may be more conducive to projects hinged on cooperation and teamwork.

"If you were engaged in a collaborative meeting, you might want to look less powerful and authoritative. And you might want to look more empathetic and inclusive. So your body language would need to be in sync with whatever that impression is," Goman said.

Prioritize empathy and understanding

The sudden transition to the digital workplace has been a challenging process for many organizations from both a logistical and technical standpoint. At the same time, many individuals are experiencing outside stressors in their daily lives as the pandemic continues to spread around the globe. It's important to align your communication strategy with compassion and empathy in mind.

"Because of this pandemic, people are just craving being understood, relating to each other empathetically and kindly and warmly. So those signals will do you well. Warm signals are things like starting with a smile. Unless you have genuinely bad news to tell, you want to start with a smile," Goman said.

Take pause literally and figuratively

The ability to masterfully slow down a conversation and provide lengthy gaps between individual points can be a powerful communication skill. The power of the pause cannot be emphasized enough; especially in a virtual meeting.

"When you've made a point, pause. Give people time. Give people's brains time to evaluate and consider what you've said because they need that extra time that they wouldn't necessarily need in a face-to-face encounter," Goman said.

A pause can also act as a way of emphasizing a point in the conversation. Additionally, a slight hesitation before continuing a thought will also give others time to reflect on these ideas before moving on. These same principles hold true when one is in the role of the listener in a virtual meeting, by presenting the body language associated with listening and contemplative pause.

"When someone asks a question, a pause before you answer gives the impression and hopefully it's an accurate impression that you are really considering that question. And you're not coming up with a canned answer," Goman said.

Learn from past presentations

Even after carefully considering the impact of our nonverbal and verbal communication there's still room for error. To better understand the way an individual's communication is interpreted by others, Goman suggests recording your standard speech delivery on a video call. Perhaps use a socially distanced video chat with a friend to better understand habits and refine nonverbal cues. 

"While we are so involved in what we're saying, we forget how we look when we're saying it. So taking a look at yourself is one of the best things that you can do," Goman said.

By muting the conversation and simply watching the nonverbal cues, people may be able to make notes about nervous tendencies or old habits. The cues we use socially may lend themselves well to our professional lives.

Maintain eye contact

Strong and engaged eye contact is one of the most fundamental components of in-person communication. Unfortunately, direct eye contact is nearly impossible on a video call.  To demonstrate artificial eye contact in a call, individuals will need to stare directly at the webcam. However, by staring at the webcam individuals may miss out on important visual cues the speaker is delivering on-screen.

"This combination of illusion and reality, I think is the toughest thing for a lot of us. I know that I miss real eye contact. I miss looking at people when they speak, and when I speak to them so I can see how they react. That can't happen," Goman said.

Goman suggests watching the screen and absorbing these nonverbal cues while others are speaking. Then, when it's time to speak or present, people may want to look at the webcam to enable eye contact. It may seem a bit inorganic to stare directly into the glowing LED alongside a webcam, but there are ways people can humanize this awkward situation.

"Put a little smiley face or something on top of that, so you have the illusion that you are talking to a real face or the picture of somebody you love, or your dog or something to help keep that impression going for you and helps warm up your voice," Goman said.

SEE: Teleconferencing policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Present the "total package"

There's certainly a time and place within this limited space to present the full range of nonverbal communication. A rich patchwork of varied cues will allow participants to present the full spectrum of authoritative and empathetic communication.

"We're looking for warmth, empathy, likeability signals, and we're looking for power status authority signals. If you can combine those, you've got an amazingly impactful package," Goman said.

While good posture is a great way to enhance authoritative signals and competence, there are other easy ways to introduce empathy and likeability signals on a video conference call.

Goman suggests small steps such as nodding when others are presenting their ideas and resting your chin lightly on your fingers while listening. Tilting your head slightly is also a helpful way to express interest nonverbally, as this exists as the "universal sign of giving someone your ear," according to Goman.

Set aside time to refocus before virtual meetings

In a day brimming with back-to-back meetings, it can be all too easy to click the next conference hyperlink without much forethought.

In the era of Zoom burnout and video conference fatigue, it's imperative to take a moment to reflect on the next presentation and consider the lasting impact of one's nonverbal communication ahead of time.

"Before you get on that meeting," Goman said, "take a few minutes to just think of why this meeting is important, why it's genuinely something that you're invested in, and that will help you align your gestures." 

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