How does your body language translate in virtual meetings

Written by Patricia Peyton and Claire Dale Thursday 09 April 2020
Now you’re having to read virtual cues, you’ll need to know these tips

The shift to working from home is leading to other shifts as well: many of us are communicating much more often in virtual meetings. To communicate effectively in a virtual meeting, body language matters. Vocal tone, eye contact and appropriate gestures all increase our ability to connect with clients or colleagues, build or reinforce trust, and communicate most effectively. Here are the things to be conscious of on a virtual meeting.

Face to face

Not everyone is comfortable sharing their video, but the ability to connect visually is one of the most significant benefits of virtual meetings. Eye contact boosts oxytocin (a social bonding chemical), forging a closer connection with others on the call. It helps people feel “seen”, indicating that they are important and aren’t being ignored, elevating serotonin (happiness chemical) levels. Be prepared to share your video, set the expectation that video will be shared when scheduling meetings, and encourage others to share their video.

Maintain appropriate eye contact

It isn’t enough to just share video – we need to actively make eye contact. Balance looking at the faces of others with looking into the camera lens (so that others can see your eyes). This is counter-intuitive and might take practice because looking at the camera usually requires looking away from the faces of those in the meeting. Remember to smile into the camera and make sure that your smile reaches your eyes. Smiling at yourself boosts serotonin (happiness chemical). Smiling at others boosts oxytocin, and if they smile back, you’ll get a dopamine (pleasure/need chemical) boost.

Are you ready for your close up?

In virtual meetings, people see us in “close up” and posture, facial expressions and gestures all become more important. Open body language indicates honesty – boosting oxytocin levels and enhancing trust. It’s important to keep cortisol low so that we feel and appear comfortable and authentic, can stand our ground, if necessary, and have a clear head for decision-making. If cortisol is high, our facial expressions and gestures can become rigid, interfering with our ability to connect and collaborate, or erratic, (e.g., waving our hands around too much), which can be distracting. Demonstrating presence and confidence is key. We need to “own our space” literally and metaphorically.

Focus on your posture

When you see yourself on screen, you shouldn’t be able to tell if you are sitting or standing. For good seated posture, ground yourself by placing your feet flat on the floor, sitting well-anchored in your chair, closer to the edge of the seat, not leaning on the desk or back in the chair. Your feet should be in contact with the ground, creating a feeling of balance that creates emotional and mental stability by lowering cortisol (stress chemical) and boosting acetylcholine (balance chemical). Relax and expand your shoulders without assuming a dominating posture. This boosts testosterone and serotonin, which helps us feel confident, communicates confidence to others and helps them feel more confident.

Take your voice to the gym

While faces appear close in virtual meetings, this is not a tête á tête. Technology creates a barrier that can suck the life out of your communication. Proper projection, checking to be sure we can be heard, and vocal flexibility create interest for others and capture and hold attention. Elongated vowel sounds in the English language, and in most languages, carry emotion.

Clipped vowel sounds and shortened words create the impression of not caring.

Try saying ‘Welcome, everyone’ with short vowels, then again with long vowels. Which is more welcoming? Long, resonant vowels, spacing words out and using pauses matter, especially when the message is serious, concerning topics where people feel strongly.

For example, if announcing job cuts or de-escalating a crisis, those affected need time to connect with what the words mean and the magnitude of the emotion – building trust between the speaker and the listener and giving people time to feel. Confidence also affects how we sound. If cortisol is too high, our voices become thin and tight, our speech speeds up, and we may sound more hesitant, (more “ums” and “ers”) – conveying self-doubt and lack of confidence to your audience.

We need vocal strength and flexibility. Vocal strength relies upon effective breath support. Use paced breathing to prepare yourself vocally and mentally before a virtual session, just as before an in-person meeting. At least ten minutes of daily paced breathing helps keep cortisol levels under control. Breathe diaphragmatically, in through the nose, out through the mouth with a steady count in and out. In and out counts don’t have to match (e.g. 5 in/7 out or 7 in/7 out). A longer out-breath helps dispel CO2, which increases cortisol if it builds up in the base of the lungs.

Vocal flexibility is rooted in physical flexibility. Tension in our shoulders and neck, impact the sound of our voice – particularly restricting lower frequency resonance, which gives us both warmth and authority. With good posture in place, relax your neck using this Shoulder Lift and Drop Exercise:

  • One by one, lift your shoulders up in eight steps so that by the eighth step your shoulders are up by your ears.
  • Tip your head back and squeeze your neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Breathe in, hold for a second, then drop your shoulders down, simultaneously breathing out and balancing your head back on your vertical spine.
  • Repeat as needed.
  • Say out loud, “my throat is relaxed and open.” Use your “full” voice to reach people through technology.

For more ways CMI can help you through the Covid-19 crisis, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

CMI Members can also log into ManagementDirect for more advice on reading and conveying body language as well as communication tips.

Image: Unsplash