We all know that when it comes to communication, body language is important. And many would say that body language when presenting online is critically important. In fact, there are some people who think that what we communicate is expressed more through body language and facial expressions than the actual words we use.
This belief largely stems from the Mehrabian model, a study carried out in 1967 that examined three critical tools humans use to communicate. The results? Words – 7%, tone of voice – 38% and facial clues – 55%. However, to suggest that words only account for a minimal level of understanding is simply not true. In actual fact, the study only examined how we communicate feelings and emotions. It didn’t relate to the communication of information. The study is now, more often than not, referred to as the 7% – 38% – 55% myth!
The importance of non-verbal clues
Notwithstanding the myths that surround the Mehrabian model, we are all perceptive to non-verbal cues and clues, even if we are not consciously aware of the fact. When we interact with people we constantly assess their body language and how they react to us and other people around them.
This is fairly easy when we’re face-to-face in a meeting room or presentation setting where we can observe the key, non-verbal cues of a number of people at any one time. Just by glancing around the room we can instantly take account of their posture, arm movements, hand signals, proximity to other people, facial expressions, head movements and level of eye contact and make an immediate assessment, regardless of what they may actually be saying. Are people engaged or bored? Being honest or deceitful? And are they open or closed to your ideas?
At the same time they are also making the same judgements about us. Our posture, the way we gesture, how we stand, the extent to which we move and how we physically ‘own the room’ all combine to communicate our presence, confidence, comfort, authority and credibility. If you’d like to know more about how to ‘own the room’ then have a read of our blog ‘Body Language during Business Presentations’.
But when we’re in a virtual meeting or presenting online we miss out on many of the non-verbal cues – especially if we are faced with a mass of thumbnail views – which makes it harder for us to gauge the audience’s level of interest, and more crucially, harder for us to keep the audience engaged and on our side. So we’ve put together some essential tips on body language when presenting online – what to do and what not to do when you are presenting online so that you can ‘own the screen’ and communicate your ideas more effectively.
6 Tips every virtual presenter should know about body language
TIP #1: Master your online presence
This means getting your set-up right.
Imagine the screen as your presentation frame – this is the only view that your audience will see – so make it count. Your camera must be at eye level and the top of your head should be just below the top of your camera frame as you look at yourself on screen. The bottom of your camera frame should sit slightly below your armpits. This framing will ensure you’re maximising your personal presence on camera and also that you can use your hands and arms as key communication tools.
TIP #2: Posture like a professional
All too often we see people either leaning (more like looming) over their desk and into their camera. If you do this your arms will almost always be crossed in front of you, therefore closing your body off from your audience. You’ll also appear as though you’re staring the audience down – which is a sure-fire way to get your listeners wanting to back away!
The other fault we commonly see is people slouching back, especially if they’re on a couch and using a laptop. This will make you look at best disengaged and passive, or at worst, lazy and unprofessional.
Instead, your body language when presenting online should be positively professional. Sit upright with your hands – when they are in a neutral position – on the table or desk in front of you. Don’t be static though! In Tip #3 there are some techniques on how to use gestures effectively if you’re presenting online. If, on the other hand, you’re part of an online audience, with your video on, then it’s fine to lean slightly forward e.g. resting your chin on your hand (a la Rodin’s ‘The thinker’) to show that you’re paying particular attention to what’s being said.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ‘stand up’ desk then position your body so it’s not directly facing the camera. Instead turn slightly to the left or the right of it. Then turn your head to look directly at the lens. This body language will prevent your shoulders being square on This will help you to look warmer and more inviting as and presents a friendly, non-confrontational style.
TIP #3: Hand gestures make people listen to you
Gestures are a great way to convey energy, tell a story, emphasise a message and bring your content to life. A study by Holler and Beatie found that gestures increase the value of our spoken message by a massive 60%, and the most acclaimed ‘Ted Talkers’ use twice as many hand gestures than those with a lower appreciation score. But we tend to use gestures more when we can’t find the right words to make our point. So prepare your presentation and make sure you know exactly what you are going to say first, then add gestures to amplify key points and engage more effectively with your audience.
To make sure you can gesture effectively online you need to get your set up right as per Tip #1. You need to think outside of the box but visually stay within the box, or in this case, your frame, and your gesturing frame should be from the top of your shoulders to your armpits if you’re sitting down and from your shoulders to your waist if you’re standing. If you gesture outside of this frame it will look over-exaggerated and somewhat manic! Equally, if people can’t see the entirety of your gesture then it becomes diluted and perhaps, even confusing. So, if necessary move your camera further away from you to give yourself space to use gestures in a more meaningful way.
Fluidity of movement is key. It’s important that you don’t use flappy, ‘jazz hands’ and meaningless gestures; these will be a visual irritation for your audience. Instead, to improve your body language when presenting online think about how you can use gestures in an intentional way to add emphasis. Here are some techniques to try:
- Count on your fingers to emphasise chapters of your story, or parts of an argument.
- Use your hands to physically reinforce a message and communicate scale (e.g. a big increase in sales; we’ve seen a slight reduction in absenteeism, there’s been a hike in the price of raw materials; this has only had a small impact on our bottom line.
- Use the ‘listen up’ or ‘bottom line’ gesture (open palms with one hand slightly raised) to reinforce key points, but use it sparingly for greater impact.
- Pointing. It can be confrontational, but it can also be used for emphasis, – ‘you know what, I just remembered a great point’.
- Weighing up. Use your hands like a set of balancing scales to communicate alternate scenarios or views.
Bonus tip: Avoid gestures that push your hands towards the camera as your hands will suddenly become extra-large on the screen of your audience and this could come across as intimidating.
If you want to explore specific gestures and tips on posture in more detail then check out our previous blogs ‘Where to place your hands during a presentation’, and ‘What should I do with my hands when I’m presenting?’
TIP #4: Avoid fiddling
Most of us become extra self-conscious when we’re on a VC call, especially when we catch a reflection of ourselves in the onscreen thumbnail. As a consequence, we’re often compelled to make adjustments to how we look. This can mean we start to fiddle with our hair, our beard, remove a piece of fluff or adjust our clothing etc. This can be really distracting for the audience. Likewise, we can subconsciously scratch an itchy nose, or pick at a loose nail, or play with our jewellery. Again, these actions are distracting and can annoy others on the call.
So be mindful of your posture and what your hands are doing at all times. Turn off your own thumbnail view if it helps you to stay focussed and keep your hands relaxed and on the desk when you’re not using them to make a specific point.
TIP #5: Your listening / resting face can speak volumes
If you are not leading the meeting it can be very easy to drift off. Or even worse, become distracted by incoming emails and notifications. Whilst you might think you’re covering this up, hoping that nobody will notice that you’ve become disengaged, it’s almost sure to be picked up by others on the call, especially by those that are presenting. They will see your eyes darting to another screen or window; they’ll spot that your active, listening face has switched to a ‘pretend’ listening face, they might even sense when you’re typing. And when people pick up on the fact that you’ve tuned out, they’ll begin to wonder why you’re there in the first place.
Oh and if you think you can multitask, i.e. process what someone is saying at the same time as reading something different, think again. Multiple studies have concluded that the brain simply isn’t wired to multitask; it can impair our cognitive ability and have a huge impact on productivity. One notable study by Meyer concluded that even brief, mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. So work on your ‘listening face’, practice in front of the mirror if you have to, and stay tuned in.
Tip #6: Don’t forget to smile
This is one of the absolute musts to improve your body language when presenting online! There’s plenty of scientific evidence proving the many positive effects smiling has on our emotions. Smiling releases endorphins, natural painkillers, and serotonin. Together these three neurotransmitters make us feel good from head to toe. When we smile we look younger and more attractive. Smiling relieves stress, lowers our blood pressure and boosts the immune system. It also makes us appear more successful and guess what? It’s contagious. Smiling will create the impression that you actually want to be there, which in turn will help to make the audience want to be there too.
Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to amplify
Because we’re presenting to a camera and ‘down the wire’, our body language when presenting online is not as clear to our audience as it would be if we were meeting face-to-face. That means facial expressions, such as a smile, are more muted than they would normally be. So we need to amplify our smiling so that this positivity is clearly seen by our audience. That doesn’t mean grinning like a Cheshire cat at all times. It simply means that we need to be more tuned into our facial expressions.
For most of us, smiling to camera, especially when others don’t have their video switched on, can feel truly unnatural. If this applies to you then a good idea is to take a corner of a post-it note (a piece with the sticky stuff on the reverse, draw a smiley face 😀 and then stick this next to your camera. This will act as a reminder to ‘Dial your Smile!’
It is difficult to present to a remote audience online with the same level of energy and connection that you get from sharing a room. But there are a number of simple strategies and techniques you can employ that will significantly improve your ability to convert your attendees from being passive listeners into an active audience. Presenting online with impact requires a whole different set of skills to keep your audience engaged and on your side.
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Written By Belinda Huckle
Co-Founder & Managing DirectorRead Bio
Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.
Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.
She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.