Body language can take time to perfect even in the best of settings—and virtual settings aren’t always that. With that in mind, here are five strategies for ensuring that you’re making your point on camera.
Arms crossed. A wandering gaze. A focus on your phone rather than on the person speaking. These are just some of the ways that bad body language can undermine a face-to-face conversation.
Talking to someone in a virtual setting isn’t exactly the same, but it does involve many of the same cues, according to communications coach Ann Timmons. She says many people think they’ll be more comfortable at home than they are in the boardroom—and that expectation might create a false sense of security in their presentation skills.
“There’s that real disconnect that I think throws people off because they expect to be more comfortable than they are,” Timmons says.
But as with in-person presenting, practice makes perfect. Here are some of Timmons’ suggestions for improving your body language in virtual settings:
- Consider the frame. When you’re presenting in person, you don’t have to think about what’s in the frame. But when presenting remotely, what falls within the frame can affect the way others interpret your body language. If you do a lot of hand gesturing, Timmons suggests being aware of how these movements look in the frame. “You need to be aware that if you’re gesturing, you want to be in the frame, so you have to practice this,” she says. She adds that hand gestures may feel most natural near the top of your chest, but this position can look unnatural on camera. Instead, she suggests positioning your gestures closer to the sides of your face. “It feels unnatural but looks really natural.”
- Look at the camera, not the screen. One big challenge many people have in remote meetings is that it’s impossible to maintain eye contact—webcams are positioned above the screen, so when you’re looking at someone as you would in a face-to-face conversation, your gaze appears downward to that person. Timmons suggests training yourself to look at the camera instead of someone’s face. “I tell my clients when you are speaking, look in the camera, and then wait for a response,” she says. “Look at the person. You need to do a fair amount of both of those.”
- Embrace verbal check-ins. Timmons says some speakers may fret that they can’t “read” their audience in a virtual setting, but she points out that we aren’t superstars at reading reactions correctly even in person. Timmons suggests that presenters check in verbally with the audience every once in a while to make sure they’re still following. “I think Zoom is making us more aware of that, for which I am very grateful,” Timmons says of the face-reading issue, adding that she hopes it transitions to in-person settings as well.
- Get in touch with your body. Many people may face a bit of nervousness during important calls, which can affect their body language. “Everybody feels nervous; it’s part of the human condition,” she says. “It’s perfectly normal, but there are strategies to mitigate that.” Timmons coaches people to breathe more carefully as they focus on building their confidence. Even the classic advice to breathe deeply when nervous can help.
- Watch out for bad habits. A lot of people (this writer included) have a tendency to speak too fast when they’re on camera, leading to an increase in filler words. Or perhaps you have a bad body-language tendency you want to break. Timmons says that being consciously aware of these habits is key to erasing them. “It’s not even like an itch you have to scratch,” she says. “You can literally say to yourself, ‘I’m not gonna say “like”!’ It takes a while to break it, but, again, practice over time.” She adds that these habits are often the result of nervous energy, so taking time to breathe and slow down can help. “Speaking is a physical activity, and so you need to train your body how to react, how to get in that position,” she says.