Successful non-verbal communication for video-conferencing

Now that we have transitioned to working from home, and worked out some of the technical issues about making things we used to do face-to-face happen online (like Shut Up and Write sessions) we maybe have some room to add a bit of finesse into our work and teaching. (If you are still in the emergency distance learning ‘throw all the things onto the inter-webs and pray’ stage, then leave this post till later. It will still be here!)

In the first stages of talking to each other on video, we needed to establish the basics: are we connected, are we able to hear each other, is content being transmitted?

But we all know that ‘the message’ is only partly about the words we use. For example, in this previous post about communicating well in difficult meetings, I include advice about your mood and posture as well as strategies and scripts.

Being in a different room makes every meeting via video conferencing ‘difficult’: but there are things you can do to make things much more successful for everyone involved. Video is easier than telephone-only teleconferences, because you can mobilise a whole range of visual, as well as aural, non-verbal clues to help get your messages across.

When I teach via video, as I often do these days, I find I need to use every tool in my tool-box to be clear, engaging and effective in helping students grapple with unfamiliar and complex information and tasks. And I’m sure you are having the same challenge.

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Here is my list of the 5 most important things to do to communicate well non-verbally in video meetings.

1. Make an entrance

Get all your screens, sound, set up, notebook etc set up, and then enter the meeting. Some software allows you to do a sound and video check before you join the call, and I recommend you use it. When you appear on the screen, you are ready to join the meeting. 

2. Personal appearance

You won’t always be speaking. Unless you are giving a lecture, there will be significant portions of the meeting/class where you will be listening or other people will be working.  So a lot of the time, the only part of you communicating is the passive messaging sent out by your personal appearance. 

First of all, this means that you, as a person, appear on the video screen. When students and staff feel the distance and uncertainty suddenly imposed by having to work remotely, it’s important that you visibly keep showing up.

But what you look like when you show up also matters. It can be tempting to change your dress-code entirely now you are working from home (and there are a lot of jokes about it floating around social media)—but that says ‘things are completely different now I’m not on campus’. And the message we want to send is, ‘we’re in a different physical space, but I’m still here for you as a teacher and colleague’. So if you typically rock up at work in a t-shirt or hoodie (as many academics and students do), as long as you are wearing clothes, it’s good. But if you typically dress up a bit, then having a collared shirt or a nice scarf (or some lipstick if that’s your thing) signals that you are still you, and you are still turning up. 

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3. Smile

It is really stressful to talk to a panel of people with impassive faces. Human beings even prefer a frown or visible distraction! Looking at our computers, we often have no expression at all, but in a meeting or class you are actually looking at other humans. Smile from time to time! Everyone will feel more positive and connected, and less stressed.

4. Tone of voice

Always, your tone of voice gives people a lot of information about what you mean by what you are saying. Giving written feedback is harder than giving verbal feedback because conveying tone in your writing is hard work.

Most of the time, we want to convey a warm, approachable, encouraging and caring tone in our classes and meetings. With that in mind, the easiest way to get your tone right is to smile when you talk. Because of the position of your mouth when you smile, the way you pronounce sounds and your vocal pitch will change subtly and people will hear it. This is why you should smile when you talk on the phone too—no-one can see you, but they can hear you smiling.

5. Gestures

Your hands and head are visible on video, and can be very helpful in communicating, especially when you are on mute. For example, ‘can you all hear me?’ can be answered with nods and thumbs-up gestures (or shaking heads). You might gesture with your finger to point out where to find the ‘share screen’ button, or you might signal that you are entering or leaving the meeting by waving. I was at a research seminar on Sunday where we all clapped on mute—the speaker couldn’t hear our applause but they could see it.

Make sure your gestures are clear and unambiguous. Make them slightly bigger and stronger than you would in person. You will be a tiny thumbnail on a screen, often only a few inches tall. Sometimes the sound or visuals will glitch or the quality will be a bit grainy. So really use your whole arm to wave, use big sweeping neck movements to nod. When you are speaking, use your hands and arms and facial expressions to underline your meaning to give people a second chance to guess what you are saying.

In the same way, avoid gestures that are meaningless and distracting on-screen. If you are a fidgeter, feel free to play with that pen, just do it out of sight of the camera. That way people won’t be confused or distracted trying to read meaning into something that’s just a physical habit for you.

***

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As we get used to being online, we will no doubt get more sophisticated about how we communicate and a whole range of symbols, norms and gestures will emerge. But right now, these are 5 quick ways you can easily up your non-verbal communication on video game, and hopefully that will help you get on with the job.

There are so many difficult things people are facing right now it can seem pointless to wear a shirt or smile, but clothes and facial expressions are actually powerful non-verbal communication tools. And we can use all the powerful tools we have.

Stay safe. Keep washing your hands. Keep up the good work.

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