How to make a powerful virtual first impression during a call

First impressions matter. Book covers, article headlines, pitch emails, resumes, LinkedIn headlines, and dating profile pictures are all examples of the power of first impressions in action. You can have so much value to offer but without that initial hook others might never get to find out. And in the age of COVID-19 and remote work, you need to master the art of making a great first impression virtually.

But is there a difference between making a good impression online versus in person? The fundamentals are the same, with a few nuances, according to Jake Housdon, director of sales development at telemedicine startup Dialogue.

“If you think of communication on a spectrum with in-person on one end, and then let’s say the written word on the other extreme, you have fewer variables at your disposal as a communicator the closer you get to the written word. There are fewer opportunities to inject your uniqueness, your essence, your emotion — the parts that make you human,” he says.

“There’s a higher degree of abstraction to grapple with too. People behave differently when the circumstances or details surrounding a person or situation are less personal or tangible.”

Housdon says that in order for calls to have the same potency as face-to-face interactions, you need to aim to reduce the abstracts and immerse yourself in the conversation. Here are six concrete ways to achieve that and make a powerful virtual first impression during your next call.

Make sure your camera is on

According to Housdon, avoiding video calls means leaving a lot of communication gains on the table. “You’re limiting yourself to the variables that you have access to when you’re using just your voice as a communication vehicle. You minimize the number of cues that you can communicate or perceive.”

While it can be tempting to keep your camera off to hide a bad hair day or messy background, don’t do it. And if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t turn their camera on, you still want to keep yours on to convey your personality and build trust.

Avoid multitasking

“If you’re in a conversation with someone, be fully present and immersed. It’s a respect thing. It’s more tempting over a video call or phone call to try to squeeze in another task at the same time, or to be distracted by an incoming email or Slack message,” says Housdon.

Do you know how being on your phone while talking to someone is considered rude? Consider this the virtual equivalent. You may think that it doesn’t show, but your interlocutor will sense it in your energy.

Turn off all notifications

Avoiding distractions is easier when you don’t have them in your face during a conversation. Housdon recommends closing all apps and browser tabs and making sure any notifications are off before hopping on a call. “Before I begin a video call, I take a moment to close all unnecessary applications on my computer, especially anything that could send a distracting notification my way mid-call.”

Keep your energy high and positive

Did you know that your body language subconsciously affects others? “It’s all about mirror neurons — neurons in our brain that react both when we do something as well as when we witness another person doing something. Understanding that you can quite literally have the other person experience the same emotions or behavior that you’re putting out is a key insight for any communication, but particularly in the further abstracted form of a video or audio call.”

So if you want a good outcome at the end of your call, focus on spreading the good vibes. Start the conversation with a huge, infectious smile and be as warm and expressive as you can. “Be mindful of the energy that you’re bringing into the call, and be proactive in injecting positive energy.”

Demonstrate active listening

“There’s a lot of discussion around active listening, which is critical to communicating well. However, demonstrating that you are actively listening is also important, especially when dealing with less communication variables,” says Housdon.

In other words, when you’re on a call, you need to go the extra mile to show the person on the other end of the line that you’re engaged. “This can be done with a mixture of visual cues, like a head nod, raising your eyebrows or other facial expressions, as well as audio cues like, ‘Right,’ or ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ or “Really?” — you get the idea.”

Mention you’re taking notes

If you’re taking notes during a video call — which is often a good idea in terms of having fruitful follow-ups — you’re going to be looking down. Housdon says you should tell the other person you’re taking notes. Yes, it’s to avoid looking rude, but it can also have a surprisingly positive effect on the conversation.

“Part of it is so that they know why you’re breaking your gaze with them, but it’s also mildly flattering and can trigger the other person to open up more on a particular topic. Make sure to keep looking up while you do it. Another thing I like to do is momentarily raise my hand with the pen in it so that it’s captured in the video frame. This visual cue shows that you’re ready to take notes, and you’re really keen on absorbing everything the other person has to say.”