Updated: Aug 25
This post was authored by Rachel Cossar and Joe Navarro
COVID-19 has done a number on person-to-person contact. Presently, and for the foreseeable future, many companies have sanctioned working from home and converting in-person meetings into telephone calls or video conferencing. What can we do to increase the efficiency of our online communication and maintain as high a level of connection as possible?
As you will see, many — if not all — of the same elements of nonverbal communication that are integral to a successful in-person meeting are important for video conferencing.
Setting the Stage
Similar to the way you would set your stage prior to an in-person meeting, the level of attention to detail that goes into preparation for your online meeting is crucial.
Let’s say, for instance, you moved your in-person client meeting to a Zoom meeting.
Orient your device so that your client has a clear, well-lit view of your face: The light source should be in front of you. Avoid being backlit, which means you should not have a window behind you.
Your Device: Make sure your laptop or digital device is on a firm surface. Laptops held on legs or pillows will shake and make for an unsteady and distracting presentation.
Declutter your workspace: Yes, this means silencing or turning off other devices. This will also help with your own focus while working remotely.
Close or even lock the doors to your room to avoid distractions.
Virtual Backgrounds: The preferred colors are neutral, and blue is always a favorite. Remember that you want to be taken seriously, so be careful what you choose. Keep in mind that if you use a virtual background you will have to be very still, because of the digital halo that takes place when you move.
Microphone and Speaker: For the sake of quality we recommend using either a clip-on microphone or a headset so you can maximize your voice and avoid an echo of your voice on an open speaker.
Make sure your attire is professional and you are well-groomed: Just because you are home does not mean you shouldn't take the usual steps to present a neat self.
Your face should take up no more than one-third of the screen: Take a cue from newscasters, your face should be somewhere between a quarter and a third of the screen and no more.
Image location: Set the onscreen image you will be talking to as close to the device camera as you can so that you look into the camera more naturally than when it's off to the side.
These things may seem simple, but properly setting your stage will determine the tone of your conversation. The nonverbals of an organized and streamlined setup sends a strong first impression. Importantly, it has the power of reminding your client that you are just as committed to the relationship as if the meeting were happening in person.
Harness Your Posture
In most video conferencing set ups, you see the upper body and face. This does not mean that you can stop paying attention to the messages your body might be sending. In fact, videos tend to accentuate the messages our bodies send because there are fewer distractions to focus on in general.
When you are on a video call, bring awareness to the following areas of your physicality to ensure you are not sending unintended messages:
Beware the tendency to let your face go slack when you are listening to your client/partner talk. They can still see you.
Don’t hesitate to nod with approval just as if the person were in front of you.
Head tilt is always useful to communicate you are interested in what is being said.
Upper Body Posture
Maintain an open body posture and don’t be afraid to lean in when something interesting is being shared.
Avoid hunching over your laptop. This gives an exaggerated impression of being tired and/or tense.
Pro-tip! Build your open body posture from the ground up. Ensure your feet are firmly placed on the ground. If available, use a chair with armrests or place your hands on the table in front of you.
Body Gestures and Proxemics
In nonverbal parlance, paying attention to the space between you and your audience is a key element in understanding how big your gestures should be. For example, with an intimate audience of one, you will have a reduced amplification of arm movements compared to when you are presenting in front of an audience of 1,000.
In video conferencing, the lens is the filter through which your movements will carry. Give yourself enough space so that you can move freely, but not so much space that you lose the important details of facial expression. In particular:
Be wary of exaggerated arm movements. If your connection is lagging, this can make for a bit of a ridiculous impression.
Give your movements more weight. This will help translate and provide a buffer in case you do have a lag.
And once more, you want to lean forward but not be too close to the lens.
Recently I had students raise their hand on screen to let me know if they had a question — useful when it is a small group or gathering.
Other Key Tips
Eye contact remains a crucial way to signal to your audience that you see and hear them. It can be tricky with video calls to know where to look. One thing for sure, don’t look at yourself. If you have set up properly, you should be confident enough to close down your self-view (this is an option on Zoom) and free yourself up to connect more directly with your audience.
Active listening goes a long way over skype or Zoom. A slight head tilt and occasional head nods will let your audience know you are very much with them and not thousands of miles away. You can also use arched eyebrows to signal silently when someone makes a good point.
Close down all distractions. I’ll repeat it again: minimize open tabs, close down your email alerts, and put your phone on silent.
Mute as a habit. Get used to muting when in a gathering so you can cough, clear your throat, and avoid unexpected background noise like a blaring siren. This advice extends to your video as well, if you need to do something, and you are just listening, better to mute the video than to distract the audience.
Conclusion: Video conferencing is the present and the future. How we perform, how attentive we are to the small details, including our nonverbals matter. What was once envisioned as science fiction is now here on our desks and even our smartphones. Everyone is seemingly doing it—what a great opportunity to get it right.
Rachel Cossar is a former internationally ranked athlete and professional ballet dancer. She is the Founder and CEO of Choreography for Business, a global communications and presence consulting firm.