Mastering Body Language

Body language online is unfamiliar to most. We identify the key principles to mastering online body language.
Mastering Body Language

Unless you are a television anchor or spokesperson, speaking directly to camera is not a familiar or practiced skill.  This article will reveal the simple ways you can improve your on-screen presence in virtual meetings. You’ll discover how to use non-verbal messaging to your best advantage, no matter whether you are meeting with people in the same building or on the other side of the planet.

Good body language builds trust, demonstrates respect for others, and shows enthusiasm and commitment for the subject at hand.

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What are the common body language mistakes to avoid?

There are several common body language mistakes that people often make in virtual meetings. These mistakes negatively impact your ability to engage and connect with others. If you’re not paying attention to non-verbal signals, you could be sabotaging your ability to persuade and influence others.

Before you jump into a meeting, take a few minutes to review the most common mistakes to avoid.

  • Avoid having a phone or tablet in view. Put distractions out of sight so that the other participants know your focus is on the meeting.
  • Don’t fidget or rock. It conveys nervousness or unease with the topic at hand.

In a recent virtual presentation, a top prospect tossed a hard question to the leader of a four-person sales team. Three of the salespeople started looking away and fidgeting, obviously uncomfortable with the question. The prospect waited an interminable five seconds and said, “You can’t answer my question so I’m going with the competition!” He immediately exited the meeting.

  • Stay still and focused when others are talking. Don’t distract from their message, except for nodding in the affirmative.
  • Avoid crossing your arms while speaking. It’s a signal that you are defensive or unsure of the topic of discussion. If you need to anchor your arms, put your hands on your knees.
  • Resist slouching. Sit up straight and lean slightly forward towards the camera to have a commanding presence.
A business woman at her computer with her arms crossed.
Body language during online meetings is just as important as body language in person.
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Tips for improving facial expressions

To build trust or enthusiasm for a topic, make sure that your facial expressions convey positive energy.

  • Always smile in greeting meeting attendees to set the tone of the meeting.
  • Observe the expressions of others. “Reading the room” is a skill that is just as important in virtual meetings as well as physical meetings. You can measure the audience by their expressions and respond accordingly.
  • Show animation and excitement when appropriate. Your colleagues will mirror that.
  • Use head nods, thumbs up, and emojis for positive reinforcement of what you are seeing and hearing.
  • Raising eyebrows is an underused and powerful affirmation
A smiling woman greeting others in a meeting.

How to use posture and framing to create a strong virtual presence

Posture is important in real-life meetings and even more so in virtual meetings where every action is magnified.

Posture tells a story about you, your attitude, and your level of confidence. Good posture indicates you are interested in what the other person is saying, and you value the conversation. Slouching indicates a lack of interest in the other person and their words. Poor posture also indicates a lack of self-esteem.

Sit erect leaning slightly towards the camera to show engagement and radiate confidence.

How you fill the frame is an important, often overlooked consideration in online meetings. The ideal framing is from the chest up, with your face filling the frame, with just a little bit of headroom at the top. Position the camera an inch or two below eye level. If you are using a laptop camera, use a riser to elevate the camera to the correct level.

If you are part of an online team, coordinate with your teammates so that your eye level and framing are the same, indicating unity.

A woman practicing good posture.
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The benefits of mirroring body language

Mirroring is a powerful tool that taps into innate, biological responses. According to the American Psychological Association, humans have “mirror neurons” that respond instinctively to what other people are experiencing.

When we see someone step on a nail we flinch in sympathy. And when we observe happiness or laughter, we naturally respond by mirroring that emotion.  There is a scientific explanation for why yawning and smiling are contagious! 

When we mirror expressions and body language, we demonstrate empathy and connectedness. It sends the powerful visual message, “I understand. We are in-sync!”

If someone leans towards you as they make a point, lean towards them to indicate that you are interested and listening carefully. If they sit upright, do the same.

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Use hand gestures to emphasize talking points

Use hand gestures to emphasize key messages during video calls. This helps grab the attention of other participants and makes your points dramatic and memorable.

Think of gestures not in a continuous stream, but as occasional punctuation that underscores important message. For example, if you are listing three key tasks, hold up one, two, and then three fingers as you go through the list, counting through the items. It’s common to open hands to the audience when asking “What do you think?” or indicate small or giant sizes with normal hand gestures.

Hand motions over done are distracting. Use gestures judiciously, limiting them to one or two per talking point. Once you become conscious of using hand gestures, you will discover what is natural to you and develop a new vocabulary of hand expressions.  

Practice to see what works. If you are framed correctly, your hands need be elevated higher than normal to be clearly seen.  Notice that movements toward the camera are exaggerated and far more dramatic than they seem in person.

A woman talking with her hands.
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The importance of eye contact

It’s been said that “eyes are the window to the soul.” Even cats and birds understand this, searching our eyes for hints about our intent.

Two thirds of the population believe that averting eye contact is an indication of dishonesty or guilt. Consider the suspicion raised when you ask a child, “what happened to the cookies” and your inquisitive stare is avoided.

In virtual meetings it’s not feasible to look at the camera non-stop. Meeting hosts are are too busy managing the technology, reading audience expressions, and referring to presentation materials. The opportunity to connect comes during greetings, conversations, and when finishing a point. Seize these opportunities for unflinching eye contact.

A woman providing eye contact during an online meeting.
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Strategies for managing audience distraction

According to research from Stanford University, Zoom meetings hold attention for 8-10 minutes. In an era of continuous digital stimuli, workers may be engaged in conversations on Slack, Twitter, Facebook, email, and text while half-heartedly attending a meeting.

Eighty percent of online meetings are characterized as “a complete waste of time.” When meetings drone on in boring, robotic monotones it should be no surprise that people quickly disconnect.

The foolproof solution is to encourage audience involvement and participation.  When an audience is converted from passive viewing to active participation, they stay engaged for long stretches. Here’s a case study showing how interactive methods were used to successfully train 99% of pharmaceutical sales force in 6 days.

Entertainment Value

Remember that we are performers, judged continuously by our peers by how we project on a virtual stage. We use the acting crafts to persuade, motivate, and convince. 

The futurist, Marshal McLuhan, says it best:

Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.

In order to be great at teaching, you have to be part entertainer. If your audience is bored, their attention will quickly fall off.

On the first day of Physics 101, our professor swung through the stage curtains out over the auditorium audience on a long rope. With the class standing and cheering. he finally came to rest and grabbed the mic, saying, “Our first lesson is about pendulum motion!” He got our attention in an entertaining and relevant way and kept it for 4 months. That’s not an easy assignment in a lecture hall with 600 students!

– Randall Tinfow, Managing Director of REACHUM 

At REACHUM, our mission is to provide the methods and tooling to keep your virtual audiences happily engaged and learning.