To consciously include body language in online conversations might not be an obvious thing, but it is important and simple enough

This month’s theme for the tip has been triggered by a former colleague of mine. He had gone through a training on LinkedIn Learning about the effective use of body language in meetings. He was wondering how he could use body language effectively in virtual settings considering that the field of vision is relatively small compared to face-to-face situations. Thus, he contacted me, knowing about my experience around Virtual Working.
By the way, this course on LinkedIn Learning is well put together and I will refer to it again towards the end of this blog and in its context.
To be on the same page let me first briefly describe the elements I consider being part of our body language. After that I will dive into how it is used in the virtual context.

Elements of body language

Body language largely encompasses three elements:

  • our entire body
  • our face
  • our voice

Our body – torso and limbs – sends signals at two levels: more subtle and more obvious ones. Subtle messages come from our posture and the way we are holding ourselves up. Whether our shoulders are downcast or pulled back, for example, makes a big difference to our posture. The more dynamic elements come with the use of our hands (gestures) or movements of the entire body.
Our face delivers messages on two levels, like our body. Facial expressions like smiles, laughs or frowns are delivering more conscious and dynamic messages. Micro mimics, as studied and widely explained by Paul Ekman  deliver more subtle or subconscious messages.
Our voice has a wide spectrum of delivering messages beyond the words we speak through the way we use intonation and volume. Even the pace and the modulation of our speaking contribute to the message we deliver as part of the body language. In the same way as the previous two elements, body and face, our voice has also a subtle level of delivering messages beyond the content through tonality; i.e. sincerity or conviction vs. insecure delivery of the spoken words. Overall the voice is a very powerful element and often overlooked by many.

When you now look at the three elements of body language it is relatively obvious that you can easily rescue and transfer the facial elements and your voice into the virtual world. However, even key parts of the role our body movements play can be transferred into a virtual conversation.

Body language is different when sitting in different positionsLet me explain how:

Body language in the virtual world

Body elements to transfer

Some people argue that you can’t use much of your body to contribute to the body language because of the very limited field of vision in front of a webcam. In part this is correct. However, you can try to use more of the space in front of the screen, showing more of your body by either zooming out with the webcam or, if that is not possible, using a wider-angle webcam.

Alternatively, you just move back to show more of your upper body and, therefore, bring your hands into the field of vision too.

Of course, sitting in a deskchair in front of a screen kind of locks you into a certain position and slouching is just too easy. So, it takes conscious effort to change that. However, I guess nobody holds you back to stand up and, for example, use a bistro table to place your computer with the webcam. This brings much more dynamics into the way you can speak and express yourself in comparison to sitting in a chair. Of course, this might mean you have to stand up for some time or use a barstool to rest your legs every now and then.

Contributions of the voice

It is obvious that the virtual context requires more emphasis on our voice to deliver our messages most effectively. And this may require some practice. However, playing with the volume, pace, intonation and modulation of our speech can greatly enhance the impact of our contributions. There is a great TED-talk about voice presence from Julian Treasure. I have also written about this in a previous blog on presence in virtual meetings. Playing with the way you speak, it is remarkably simple to make your voice more impactful in a virtual meeting.

In addition, the way you sit in your chair makes a difference here too! Only if you are sitting in an upright position your lungs will get sufficient breathing volume to use for expressive variations of volume and modulation in your voice when speaking.
Be also aware that all of this only works when you are using appropriate microphones or headsets to deliver your speech in the most natural way to the rest of the participants! See my other blog on the use of headsets.

Speaking with your face

Beyond the obvious aspect of putting more emphasis on your voice you can also put more emphasis on your mimics and facial expressions. This can easily compensate if you are in a constricted area that forces you into a close-up field of vision. The first step would be to pay more attention to the way you use your facial expressions in a meeting when speaking or when you are listening attentively. Your smiles, nods, or frowns play an important role here.
In the introduction to body language I have already mentioned the micro mimics as an element of body language sending more subtle messages from our face. Paul Ekman has conducted a lot of research in this field originally designed to detect whether people are telling the truth or not. At the time, this was considered especially useful in a law enforcement and border control context in the United States. Its application has widened since. Beyond just recognising the meaning of micro mimics Paul Ekman and many others now offer training on micro mimics to use them for more subtle messages we want to deliver through facial expressions. Here is a link to Ekman’s training .

Before closing I want to clarify that the conscious use of body language can only be effective if it is all in alignment with your thinking and the message you deliver through your words. If you pretend to be in a certain state of mind or want to deliver a certain message, for most of us it is almost impossible to hide incoherence between our thinking, expressed through our body language, and what we are actually saying. The only people I am aware of that are skilful enough at this are, rightly so, professional actors and, yes, some who would be good actors but have become something else. Hence, to be recognised as authentic the best way you can use body language is consciously amplify the message you have in mind and want to say.

Conclusion

So, in summary, there are in fact a lot of elements of our body language we can still use in the virtual world. Not only facial expressions and our voice but also our body can contribute greatly. However, it will require some flexibility in the use of the space in front of your screen.

And if you have a premium LinkedIn account check out the course in LinkedIn Learning I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Watching it through the lens of my monthly tip can help you to transfer the maximum of your body language into the virtual world.
I hope this helps you to be effective as a leader of online meetings or delivering your messages online most impactfully. And if you want to discuss details leave a comment below or get in touch with me direct.