With virtual meetings and presentations now a mainstay of modern work life, understanding how your body language is interpreted in online settings can help to avoid creating the wrong impression.
Non-verbal communication including facial expressions and body movements is often subconscious, so building an awareness of its impact on others can help to improve your workplace interactions, say experts.
“These powerful non-verbal signals have the power to either build rapport, influence and authority – or undermine it,” says body language expert Katia Loisel.
Fewer social cues are available during a video call because only a portion of the body is visible. Maximise what is available by including your arms and torso in the camera frame. Your head should be at camera height for natural eye contact.
“Allow your clients and colleagues to see enough of you to elicit trust and connection,” says non-verbal communication specialist Sophie Zadeh. “That means being close enough to be a significant part of the view, yet not too far in the distance that the room becomes the focus.”
Including your torso in the camera frame creates an impression of gravitas and presence.
“Many people only show their head and not their chest. If you do this, you look like a puppet and you lose your power,” says Dr Louise Mahler, a specialist in the psychology of face-to face engagement.
Similarly, gesticulating is good: but keep your hands in the frame. Hands that disappear and reappear while speaking creates an impression of deceptiveness. So to does touching your face. Fiddling with your hair can be seen as flirtatious. If you must fiddle with something like a pen, do so with your hands below the camera.
The best non-verbal communication is open and positive, says Loisel.
“Stand or sit tall, pull your shoulders back and lift your chin. Uncross your arms, legs and feet and put your feet firmly on the ground,” she says.
Another critical difference is that a video call is two dimensional, which can distort appearances.
“When we're face-to-face we have three dimensions – we can move forwards, backwards or sideways,” explains Mahler.
“On a video call, we should only ever move sideways. Leaning forward does not convey interest: it comes across as aggressive or insecure. Watch people on television: they always remain upright.”
According to proxemics - the study of how space is used for communication - meeting participants should remain 45 centimetres from their computer camera, or roughly arm’s length. Getting any closer will feel like an invasion of personal space.
“In face-to-face interactions, this level of closeness is normally only experienced during moments of intimacy or in the lead up to, or during, conflict,” says Loisel. “This perceived invasion of personal space can trigger increased stress, discomfort and fatigue.”
When delivering a presentation online, make a conscious effort to speak more loudly and appear more animated.
“Heighten your energy dramatically,” says Mahler. “Stand up. I’d never do a presentation sitting down because I lose my power when I'm seated. But do be mindful of moving around too much – you need to remain inside the frame. To present virtually is exhausting. You should finish that presentation almost on the verge of collapse.”
Her tip is to get a standing desk for presentations and to ensure the laptop is always at eye-level when seated – pop some books underneath it. Use a detached keyboard to remain the correct distance from it.
Sneaky glances at open tabs or your smartphone are more noticeable than you think and best avoided. Seek permission from meeting attendees if something is genuinely urgent and requires a momentary break.
There is a tendency to behave more passively during video calls, when in fact the opposite is required. It takes more effort to appear engaged during a video call (it is one of the reasons why ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real phenomenon).
“Many people disengage when meeting online, becoming passive rather than active participants,” says Loisel. “There’s little more discouraging than delivering a presentation to a sea of bored, disinterested faces, and defensive postures.”
Slouching, ducking of the head and turtling of the neck are signs of withdrawal and their effects are amplified in a remote setting.
Instead, try keeping your chin raised. Maintain eye contact and smile as often as possible: this will project confidence and sincerity, and enhance your powers of persuasion.
“If you find making eye-contact a challenge, there is some good news,” says Loisel. “A study found that people who made direct eye contact and smiled in the first and last minute of an interview were more likely to be remembered for the right reasons, regardless of whether they smiled during the rest of the interview.”
And if all these dos and don’ts make you feel self-conscious during your next video call, remember that if you feel engaged, more than likely you will appear that way to others also.
“If you find yourself monitoring how you come across in the digital mirror, turning it off can reduce anxiety and help you to maintain eye contact,” says Loisel.