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“People Thoroughly Underestimate the Importance of Body Language in Virtual Communication.”

The virtual work environment requires a new set of communication skills. Award-winning communication expert Richard Newman explains how to captivate an online audience.

“People Thoroughly Underestimate the Importance of Body Language in Virtual Communication.”
Richard Newman /

Richard, how did you begin your work as a communication expert and coach? 

Richard Newman: My journey started when I was 16. At school, I found it difficult to connect with people. A friend of mine gave me a book on body language for my 16th birthday. I was skeptical at first, but the book really opened my eyes to a new way of understanding people. I felt I would never be great at this, but maybe I could improve. When a friend of mine, who was brilliant and very talented, failed to get into Oxford University partly because of his communication skills, it became clear to me that I had to work on this. So I started to research communication to improve my skills and eventually launched a company to help others do the same.

Part of your journey involved living in a Himalayan monastery. Could you tell us more about this unique experience?

I went to teach English at a monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a little place called Kalimpong, near Darjeeling. When I got there, I found that the monks I was supposed to teach couldn’t speak any English at all. I had to use body language and tone of voice to connect with them and bring the lessons to life. We had to use nonverbal communication to understand each other. By the end of six months, the monks could have a conversation with me in English. I had picked up their local language, Nepali.

It became clear to me that body language was a deeper way of connecting with people from all around the globe.

Upon my return to the UK, I studied acting for three years to better understand the physical side of acting, storytelling, presence and communication. I wanted to understand how to bring a performance to life and connect with people on stage and screen.

Image of: You Were Born to Speak
Book Summary

You Were Born to Speak

Get out of your own way and release the speaker you were born to be.

Richard Newman Richard Newman
Read Summary

What role does body language play in virtual, video-based communication?

People thoroughly underestimate the importance of body language in virtual communication. They tend to just switch on their camera and think that all they have to do is to say the right words. If we were in a room with people, we would put more thought and preparation into our meetings. We would aim to engage the audience, and build rapport with them through eye-to-eye communication. However, when on camera, people are often not even looking at the person they’re speaking to. They look at another screen, do their emails in the background and then complain about Zoom fatigue!

You pointed out the irony that people complain of Zoom fatigue after a two-hour online meeting but then binge-watch Netflix for six hours without getting fatigued. Why is that? 

On a movie set, there is good lighting, good camera setup and good framing of the shots. The actors make good use of body language, tone of voice and storytelling to capture the audience. If you are in a Zoom call and know how to use body language and storytelling effectively, you can captivate people for much longer.

Are there some simple best practices you can share that will help captivate a Zoom audience for an extended period? 

When people switch on their camera, you often just see the person from the head upwards. In contrast, if you switch on the evening news, you’ll see the head, shoulders and hands of the news reporter – which is how human beings usually have a meeting. If you sit around a boardroom table, you can see the head, the shoulders and the hands of the person talking. So when you are in a video call, make sure your camera is at eye level so you can have eye-to-eye communication instead of looking down. Move the camera further away so that your arms can be seen.

Bring body language back into play because it allows you to build human connection.

You can only really have that nonverbal rapport with others if you set up the framing of your shot and use body language the same way you would if you were in the same room.

What aspects of effective communication have you been focusing on when helping people and organizations adjust to the virtual work environment?

The biggest change that we’ve worked on with people is to help them have more of a human connection with someone remote. How do you create more meaningful conversations? How do you genuinely connect with people? As people are spending less time with each other, mistrust can build up much more quickly. Unless you truly understand the needs of other people, negative assumptions and misconceptions will come up. A big focus of our training has been to help people develop deeper listening and questioning skills, to create greater understanding, trust and better relationships with clients and colleagues. 

Are there any upsides to the virtual work environment? 

People have dropped the corporate armor. More humanity seeps into the communication when people sit in their homes with their dogs, cats or kids in the background.

People get a better sense of who their work colleagues are as people.

Another advantage of seeing someone speak on camera – as opposed to seeing the person speak in a boardroom – is that you will pick up on subtleties that you wouldn’t normally notice in a large meeting room. When you’ve got people on camera, you have a close-up of every person. This gives you more of a sense of having a one-to-one connection with the other meeting participants.

Virtual Masterclass Take Two: The Science of Storytelling

Join Richard Newman on Tuesday, May 4 2021 from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. CET for a virtual masterclass with getAbstract:

You will discover how to:

  • Make your ideas more persuasive and memorable
  • Transform the way people respond to you and gain the respect you deserve, through virtual meetings, emails or conversations
  • Turn complex information into concise and compelling messages
  • Motivate people to act when you speak

Register here.

Do the same rules for effective communication apply in video as in in-person presentations, or are there differences? 

A lot of people on my team come from an acting and performance background. Acting in a theatre and acting on film involve two very different skill sets. If you’re acting in a theatre, much like if you’re presenting in a boardroom or speaking at a conference, you have to fill the space. You’ve got to physically, vocally command attention from people who are several meters away from you. Whereas when you’ve got people on camera, it’s much more of a one-to-one conversation with individuals in the audience. So a brilliant stage actor with a powerful voice can seem a bit overwhelming when on-screen in a close-up. In film, the focus is less on filling a space but on building a strong sense of a one-to-one connection. Like a good podcast or radio host, you speak into the microphone as if you were speaking to one person and not to 20,000 or 10 million.

You need to know how to draw people in.

I also notice that people tend to put much less preparation into their meetings when the meeting takes place online. They just click a link and join. But people in online meetings also have much less patience. They know they can leave the meeting at any time and pick up the conversation later. They get distracted by incoming emails and chat messages on the screen in front of them. So because people have less patience, you have to captivate them straightaway. You need to prepare more and use business storytelling to structure your meeting, so that you give them a reason to keep listening.

What are some of the ways you can captivate an online audience? 

These days, we are competing with the likes of Netflix and TV – that’s what people are used to. We are used to looking at nicely shot and beautifully lit images and following a well-paced plot with great storytelling. So if you are after quick wins, get yourself a bigger monitor and a decent camera. Make sure you put a light behind the camera so the light shines on you and you’re not in shadow. The camera must be at eye level, so you are not looking down on the laptop or up.

And, as you will talk about more in your upcoming getAbstract masterclass, there is the power of storytelling…

Learning how to become a good storyteller is key when trying to captivate people with any message – be it a team update, a new client conversation or a presentation. For thousands of years, humans used stories to pass on life and death information from one generation to the next.

The human brain is hardwired to receive information through stories.

There is no going back to normal. Knowing how to be a strong virtual communicator is now a vital career skill. Everyone can learn to do this and when they apply these skills they can gain the results they deserve.

About the Author
Richard Newman, the founder of Body Talk, is an award-winning expert in communication, storytelling and influence.

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