Nonverbal communication is already a nuanced matter. And now that Zoom meetings are the new normal, the topic just got a tad more complex. Why? Even though it’s not always consciously conveyed or accurately interpreted, body language matters even more on video calls than in person.
“A significant proportion of the meaning that we convey while communicating is shared through our nonverbal communication. Unlike in-person, during video calls, we aren’t able to observe the person’s entire body. We, therefore, miss out on a portion of the information being conveyed,” says Lindsay Lapaquette, workplace communication expert and host of The Workplace Communication podcast.
“We simply don’t have access to the same number of social cues to guide our interactions. The chances of misunderstandings, as well as unresolved questions and frustrations, are much greater.”
Learning designer and facilitator Eileen Aung-Thwin agrees. According to her, when we have fewer cues, our brains tend to fill in the blanks and jump to the wrong conclusions.
“Furthermore, people may be distracted by their own environment and situation. People will quite likely be distracted by their own video. So, the amount of data you transmit is limited, the amount of data they perceive is limited. You want to make that limited information count,” she says.
So how do you make whatever you’re showing count? By focusing on what is visible and what you can control, says online facilitator and course designer Lisa Partridge:
“Whatever is visible will go a long way in making the impression you want to create and add clarity to the overall message you would like to get across.”
And if you’re leading a meeting, your body language can inform the quality of the conversation.
“If we as presenters or leaders of the online meeting have closed body language, then this will, in turn, close off the audience which may affect the levels of participation. Contrast this to open body language with inviting welcoming gestures and you may find the audience contributing their ideas a lot more readily,” says Partridge.
Ready to understand how body language plays out virtually so you can project a powerful presence during any remote meeting? Here are seven body language habits you need to be aware of in video calls.
1. Facial expressions
Are you so poker-faced people routinely ask you if you’re OK? You might want to work on showing more emotion on Zoom calls.
“On video, with limited interaction and limited communication cues, the audience will have only the facial expression to go on to give them cues about what you’re thinking and what you’re meaning,” says Aung-Thwin.”Therefore, be conscious of your facial expression and ensure that it is conveying the impression you mean to make.”
“Don’t forget the power of a genuine smile. Communication is about connection and people can read the difference between a genuine smile and a fake one,” says Lapaquette. So no need to fake being enthusiastic if you’re not, but emphasizing your existing good mood will go a long way.
“If you are sitting, make sure you are not slouching but maintain an upright, relaxed posture. If you slouch, this will affect how you breathe and, in turn, will affect the projection and clarity of your voice,” says Partridge.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid doing anything you wouldn’t do during an in-person meeting, says Lapaquette: “Since it’s likely inappropriate to lie across some chairs during a work meeting in the office, don’t drape yourself across a couch for a virtual meeting – unless, of course, it’s an informal meeting and you know that your appearance won’t matter.”
3. Camera positioning
Think the way your camera is positioned doesn’t matter all that much? Think twice. “Remember that the perspective that others have of you is controlled by how you have framed yourself in the camera,” says Aung-Thwin.
Framing yourself too close might make you appear aggressive and cut off your hand gestures, depriving you of the opportunity to show more expression.
“In order to maximize the body language that your conversational partner can see, the ideal framing of your body on the screen would include your torso. This way, the other person doesn’t have to solely rely on your facial expressions and voice intonation for nonverbal cues,” says Lapaquette.
Angle also matters as you can easily disengage your audience with an awkwardly placed lens, says Partridge: “Make sure you are in line with the camera. Do not sit too low to the camera so that others can only see the top of your head. Likewise, position your camera so that you are not looking up to it so that others can only see your chin — this is really distracting as good eye contact cannot be established.
Quickly checking your phone while on a video call is less subtle and more detrimental than you might assume. “Slyly reaching for your phone and using fleeting sideways glances to check your messages is noticeable, even if you think it isn’t. Just stop doing it,” says Lapaquette, who recommends letting other meeting attendees know you need to deal with something and will be back if you do have an emergency to tend to on your phone.
She also says you should be mindful of fiddling and other unconscious habits: “Avoid resting your hands on your chin and keep distracting hand movements to a minimum, particularly when you’re speaking (playing with a pen, fiddling with your hair, adjusting your tie, etc.). This draws people’s attention away from what you’re saying.”
5. Arm movements
While some movements are distracting, others are actually helpful to engage your audience.
“Your hand gestures are so important as they punctuate what you are saying. This conveys energy and passion which keeps the audience attentive and engaged in the message you want to convey,” says Partridge.
“When the speaker doesn’t use their arms or upper body at all they can come across as very stiff and unengaging, lacking in energy and enthusiasm. In turn, the audience can become distracted or, worse, switch off entirely to what is being said,” says Aung-Thwin.
6. Eye contact
Communication experts are unanimous: You need to look at the camera on a video call.
“This replicates the experience of in-person communication for the other person,” says Lapaquette. “I’m surprised how many people still aren’t doing this during video calls well over six months into the pandemic.”
“Do not keep looking at another tab. When this happens, the other participants feel that you are working on something else and it gives the impression that the meeting you’re part of is actually interrupting or disturbing you,” says Partridge.
And if you want to take notes, do so sporadically and mention that you will be doing so at the beginning of the meeting — or risk making a bad impression. “You might be attentive and have your head down taking notes or contemplating the proceedings. But, on video, you’d just look uninterested,” says Aung-Thwin.
7. Obsessing over your appearance
This may feel like a bit of a paradox after deconstructing body language on video calls, but there is such a thing as being too focused on how you’re being perceived.
“The biggest reason why people struggle to connect on video calls is that they get caught up focusing on what they look or sound like. Their mind whirls, thinking about how they’re being perceived, while they’re also trying to focus enough on what the other person is saying to respond intelligently. They’re no longer fully present with the person they’re speaking with and their body language inevitably shows it” says Lapaquette.
To strike the right balance, aim to be self-aware instead of self-conscious. Then, place your focus on your interlocutor and conversation. “The more you can place your attention on the conversation itself, the more your body language will naturally reflect positive emotions which will naturally draw the other person to feel comfortable with you.”