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ATD Blog

What Does Nonverbal Communication Look Like Virtually?

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

In today’s world, ubiquitous virtual meetings, onscreen interviews, and live online trainings have “virtually” become the norm. Because the online medium is now entrenched in our culture and always evolving, we must upskill our digital competencies, including communication. At its essence, communication is a tripartite consisting of the verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal. Verbal communication is what we say, paraverbal is how we say it, and nonverbal communication is how we show it through body language. So how can we adapt our nonverbal communication skills to the virtual environment? To answer this key question, let’s focus on four specific areas.

Camera Lens Eye Contact

Eye contact in Western cultures is one of the most powerful ways to connect with others. Onscreen, this translates to looking at the camera lens, giving the illusion of eye contact. At times, you’ll naturally need to look away to scan, chat, locate the annotation toolbar, screen share a document, and focus on others. However, return your focus to the camera lens to emphasize key points and create moments of connection. Additionally, elevate your device so the lens of your webcam aligns with your hairline—your eye contact will appear eye level to better establish rapport. This can also help you avoid unflattering camera angles like being cut off at the chin or displaying too much real estate above you.

Facial Expression (Digital and Physical)

In today’s digital world, professionals have unlimited access to emojis. These clickable icons help convey one’s emotions; for example, a smiley face indicates you’re feeling good. But, with the camera on, the best method of displaying emotions is through physical facial expressions—a prized tool of nonverbal communication. For example, when you smile as you introduce yourself or greet others online, you are perceived as approachable and friendly. And thanks to the brain’s mirror neurons, others are more likely to smile back at you. Being more animated facially can also create more interest as you talk. Avoid contrived facial expressions but allow yourself to animate when it feels natural to you.


Hand Gestures (Digital and Physical)

Virtual platform tools offer many affordances such as the ability to raise virtual hands or give feedback via a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon. These virtual reactions help us communicate nonverbally. From a physical standpoint, hand gestures can enhance communication by amplifying what we say. In virtual environments, be wary of gestures if they move in front of the camera and block others’ view of you. Keep hands and gestures close to you, occasionally visible above the bottom of the camera frame, and move slower online than you would face-to-face. As always, hand gestures should never be contrived or premeditated. Allow them to freely emphasize and support your verbal message.


On-Camera Body Movement

Technology can drain our energy. Yet, when you have a persuasive call to action, or need to underscore a point, train staff, or lead employees, your enthusiasm and passion play an influential role. To boost your energy, experiment with a sit-stand desk; standing naturally gives you more energy. This kind of arrangement can also provide more flexibility. But be careful not to move your body significantly front-to-back—this distorts your size and can distract others. Instead, keep body movement to slight side-to-side movements.

Overall, nonverbal communication plays a significant role in how we communicate in person and online. When onscreen, remember to make eye contact with the camera lens when you can, leverage natural facial expression when you speak, keep hand gestures visible and close to you—not the camera—and avoid significant front-to-back body movement. Ideally, by aligning your verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal communication, and adapting your nonverbal communication to the screen, you’ll influence your virtual audience more effectively.

For more tips on how to communicate virtually, check out the book Next Level Virtual Training: Advance Your Facilitation (ATD Press, 2022).

About the Author

Diana L. Howles, MA, is an award-winning speaker and international virtual trainer who brings 25 years of experience in the learning industry. As a world-class facilitator, she has trained Fortune 100 and 500 companies and facilitated virtual programs in more than a dozen countries. Diana is currently CEO of Howles Associates. She earned a master's degree from Colorado State University and is a frequent presenter at international in-person and virtual conferences. She is author of the new book Next Level Virtual Training: Advance Your Facilitation available on Amazon. She can be reached through her website, via LinkedIn, or on Twitter @DianaHowles.ions.

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