Mind your online body language: how to improve your virtual communication skills

As we increasingly rely on technology for conversation, communications experts share the secret to successful online discussions

happy young woman using her laptop at home,sitting on the carpet in her living room. Getty Images
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We’re living in an interesting time when everything from work meetings to family birthday parties are being moved to the digital sphere.

However, communication experts warn that these online conversations – from WhatsApp chats to Zoom meetings – can lead to unnecessary rifts as it’s easier to miss important social cues.

“The impact of our communication is 70 to 90 per cent non-verbal,” says Khaulah Abbas, founder of Your Professional Presence. “Everything from our body language to our tone to our micro-expressions contribute. When we communicate in person, it’s easier to pick up on cues as we see the whole person. But even during video calls, we miss out on contextual cues – that is, what the person meant, were they joking, sarcastic or upset – and misunderstands can occur.”

“The fundamental base of every interaction we have originates from the primal question: Can I trust this person?” adds Avneet Kohli, an impact and communications coach and image consultant. “Whether in person or in the virtual environment, the human mind is always looking out for discrepancies between verbal and non-verbal communication, which take place easier during virtual or online discussions.”

Some common mistakes that Kohli notes people make when having Zoom conversations are:

  • Not looking into the camera as they speak.
  • Being incongruent in the mode of communication - meaning one might have video on while the other is on audio mode.
  • Not placing their camera at eye level reflecting an odd posture and figure of themselves.

Since it looks like video conversations are here to stay for the near future, one might as well learn how to ace them. If you’re planning to up your Zoom game, here's how you can use body language to communicate better over video, according to Abbas.

  • Start with a genuine smile. A smile is a positive and powerful cue, showing friendliness and likeability.
  • Use a head tilt and lean in slightly to show interest.
  • Keep your posture straight and avoid slouching to indicate attentiveness.
  • Be aware of your tone and pitch: Upspeak (ending a sentence as if a questioner) is best avoided. Lower pitched voices are seen to have more power and influence.
  • Sit back (about 1-2 arm's length from screen) to where hands and upper part of torso are visible. The more people can see, the more trustworthy you appear.
  • Use hand gestures to reinforce what you are saying. When people see your hands, you are perceived as more honest and trustworthy. Keeping your hands hidden gives the impression of disengagement.

Meanwhile, here are some other tips to keep in mind to improve those Zoom conversation skills

Dress the part

This one seems obvious, but the Internet seems to be brimming with stories of meetings being sidetracked when a professional is not dressed for the event. “Dress as per your organisation culture in hues that are contrasting to the room you will be seated in during your meetings,” advises Kohli.

Do not multitask

It’s important to focus on the person in front of you even if they’re not physically present says Abbas. “Keep your personal phone at bay and your tabs closed. Remember, if it isn’t something you’d do at a face-to-face meeting, you probably shouldn’t do it virtually either.”

Have a written statement before the conversation

Kohli recommends having a record of the agenda placed within sight. “This practice allows you to structure your thoughts and lead the conversation systematically to make sure all ends are covered. It results in reducing the use of unnecessary conversation filler words like, 'uhh, umm, well, basically' etc.”

Be open and direct 

During these times, when people tend to be more anxious and apprehensive about the future, Abbas recommends we be as transparent as possible. Mention the purpose of the meeting and what is trying to be achieved. “Also, listen attentively. Wait for the other person to stop talking before you start and use nods and gestures to show understanding and agreement.”