Nonverbal Communication: Presentation Tips in a Virtual Workplace

February 2021 saw the rise of Cat Lawyer, and no, it wasn’t a new Saturday Night Live skit, or an attorney for felines, but a new public speaking nightmare — being unable to turn off a filter on an online presentation. Attorney Rod Ponton was presenting in a virtual courtroom with a kitten filter covering his face as he struggled to turn the filter off. The video raced across social media, being dubbed Cat Lawyer — becoming an online presentation faux paws.

With COVID-19 making many conferences, meetings, and businesses operate remotely, it is likely in the last 12 months you have had to: 1.) become a Zoom expert, 2.) repaint the wall behind your desk so it looks attractive, and 3.) invest in a high-tech microphone and camera. If all of this wasn’t stressful enough, presenting online gives us other challenges, including the horror of being able to see our own faces while we present, adding more stress to an already stressful situation. Speaking or presenting online gives other difficulties as well, as you have to think about how you show emotion through the camera, create connection remotely, pose with camera angles, and what you do with your hands.

Why Nonverbals are Important

Being able to connect using compelling nonverbal communication is powerful and a necessary part of any presentation, meeting, or sales interaction. Nonverbal communication is the other part of the communication equation, in which verbal and nonverbal communication are the two parts of the whole. Excellent communicators utilize both, and when presenting in virtual settings, it’s not just the words you say, but the manner in which you say them — the nonverbal communication that accompanies them can often speak louder than words. Dr. Kory Floyd, a Professor of Communication at the University of Arizona, defines nonverbal communication as “comprising any behaviors with which we communicate without the use of words.” These would include eye-contact, physical appearance (including clothes, or accessories such as glasses), body movement, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal variety. “Vocal variety” comprises the ways in which you use your voice, such as rate, pitch, pauses, and volume. Utilizing nonverbal communication can make a bland presentation come alive, give flair to a TED Talk, or create connection with your audience during a meeting.

That’s really the power of nonverbal communication — connection. To make us feel connected or close to someone. This phenomenon is often studied in instructional or business settings, and is called nonverbal immediacy. Dr. Floyd says, “Nonverbal immediacy is the use of nonverbal behavior to minimize psychological distance and create emotional closeness between people. It is useful in any setting (virtual or not) in which a sense of closeness is desirable. It can be achieved through eye contact, warm facial expressions and vocal tones, forward leaning, proximity, touch, and other behaviors that help to create or maintain connection between people.”

It is a worthy goal to try to increase nonverbal immediacy when interacting and presenting online, as it will help your audience to feel connected to you.

Sara Blakely, founder & CEO of Spanx, is magical at utilizing nonverbal immediacy. In this interview, she smiles warmly, uses a lot of eye-contact with the host, has a large range of gestures, laughs, and makes the audience absolutely fall in love with her. The good news is that you can make the audience connect with you by utilizing these following four types of nonverbal communication.

1.Facial Expressions

When presenting or speaking on a virtual call or webinar, it is crucial to be mindful of facial expressions because they are on display for everyone to see. The best advice here is to stay focused and conscious of your face. Smile with your eyes and avoid being overly theatrical; you want to look invested, not exaggeratedly intense. If you aren’t actively speaking, avoid letting your face fully relax — keep your mouth closed and try not to frown. On a virtual platform, people’s faces are situated in close proximity to their webcams — this means everyone on the other side of the screen can see the changes happening in your expressions. Just remember to radiate the good vibes you are trying to promote, and your audience will recognize it.Sheila Burkett, Founder and CEO of St. Louis-based Spry Digital, says one of her top three priorities during a virtual presentation or meeting is to “SMILE and be happy to see the person.” Would you want to go to a presentation or meeting where the main orator hardly, if ever, smiles? It could result in your audience zoning out or being left with a sense that you would rather be somewhere else. Smiling and making sure people know you are happy to be there is vital to successful nonverbal communication in a virtual setting. While you by no means have to smile during the entire presentation, avoid grimacing, looking bored, and staring off camera. Be mindful that if you have another tab open on your screen, and are working on another task, the light from the screen might shine on your face, and give you away. If the topic is serious, or you genuinely don’t feel positive, don’t smile. It’s not required to smile to provide a powerful presentation, but studies show it can increase nonverbal immediacy.

2. Eye Contact

Eye contact while face-to-face can be tricky to master, and that rings true virtually as well. What is too much and what is too little? Have you ever been on a video call where someone constantly looks directly into the camera the entire time, never wavering? It seems like they are staring directly into your soul and it can start to get a little uncomfortable. When someone avoids looking in the camera at all, it can come off as awkward. There are ways to avoid falling into either of these traps. So how do you have effective eye-contact?

“The most important advice is to look at the camera, not at the image,” says Dr. Floyd, who suggests it’s important to vary your gaze whether in person, or remote.

Eye contact is still an essential part of online presentations and meetings, but to avoid seeming too intense or avoiding eye contact altogether, find the sweet spot. Alternate your time looking directly into the camera and away from it. Put your notes up around or behind your screen or camera so when you look away, you look up and around the camera instead of down at your desk. Remember to look mainly into the camera, but to take quick breaks, especially while there is a lull in speaking.

3. Body Movement and Gestures

In a pre-COVID world, when most presentations and speeches were done in person, people were less limited in what they could do with their arms and legs. You could get up and move around if you needed to in a meeting. While giving a presentation, it was ok to walk from one end of the stage or from out behind the podium to say something. Sometimes, it was even recommended.

Now, everything someone wants to convey must be done to fit inside a small square of space on a computer screen, and you have to limit how much you move around. Gestures and body movement are a huge part of nonverbal communication, and without them, it could be harder to keep audiences engaged during a presentation or to participate during a meeting.

When practicing a speech, try not to limit it to the words themselves; practice gestures and movement along with the words. It could even be beneficial to record yourself while practicing — this way, you can see whether or not your gestures stay inside the camera frame. Using this trick can also help you see if you are moving around too much (or not enough).

Dr. Floyd imparted advice on this by saying, “I think the most important thing for [gestures and body movements] is to make sure they fit the visual scope of the presentation. If I want to be an effective presenter, I can’t walk around or use large, grand gestures if those movements won’t be seen by the camera.”

Check out this video by Mary Daphne, of Explearning, to learn easy hand movements you can adopt in your presentations and meetings to help get the point across, convey emotion & empathy, and bring more meaning to your words.

4. Vocal Variety

Easily one of the most difficult types of nonverbal communication to master, we always know what bad vocal variety looks like (think Bueller’s teacher), but don’t always feel confident being bold ourselves.

How do you cultivate excellent vocal variety?


First off, it’s all about change. Sticking with the same rate of speech, same pitch, or same volume are a killer in presentations. Think about the emotion you are wanting to portray with the words, and captivate that with your voice. Are you talking about something secretive? Whisper. Discussing great news? Raise your volume a bit, and talk a little bit quicker, just for the exciting part. Pick a word that is important, and make your pitch drop from high to low on that one word. And don’t forget pauses. Pauses are an insanely impactful way to allow the audience to process what you just said. Always. Use. Pauses. Here is a great video to help you think about your tone.

Best advice? Download the app Orai, an AI app that you can perform your speech for. It listens, and gives you a score of how well your vocal variety is (or how terrible). The app also lets you know how many filler words you say (such as “ummmmm”). Check it out and perform your presentation into it next time you need to prepare for a Zoom talk to increase your vocal variety.

Conclusion

Giving presentations and running meetings in a virtual world is new to most, and it seems it’s here to stay. Embrace the challenges and know that everything will work out in the end. It’s not such a huge deal if you make an excited gesture and your arm goes out of the frame — no one is going to notice or care. 

“Recognize that you are still talking to people,” says Dr. Floyd, “Yes, you may be presenting in front of a computer or a smartphone, but you are still communicating with a human audience, and many of the behaviors that work well in face-to-face settings will translate well to the virtual environment.” 

So relax and remember it’s going to be okay. Learning to utilize excellent nonverbal communication will increase your nonverbal immediacy, and help your audience feel connected and close to you. This is vital when you are trying to make up the literal distance that remote Zoom presentations and meetings create. Just remember, if you make a mistake, it’s going to be okay.

Once, a communication professor asked an audience to count how many mistakes they had made during their lecture, when they had finished speaking. No one could remember any. The students had been so engaged in the experience, they didn’t notice that the professor had said “um” 6 times, almost burped, and stumbled on their words twice. People are not looking for you to fail, so don’t judge yourself if you are not perfect. Just smile, breathe, keep calm, and carry on.

Tory Freeman

Tory Freeman is the social media coordinator at The Communication Revolution. Before that, Tory worked in management and people-facing positions. She recently graduated with a BA in Communication & Media from the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where she continues her learning and interest in interpersonal and organizational communication.

Related Posts

5 WAYS TO DIVERSIFY YOUR SKILLSET

5 WAYS TO DIVERSIFY YOUR SKILLSET

2020 set the bar high for rapid change. In many ways, so rapid that most of us never could have imagined the speed at which we have to...

Walk Toward Resilience

Walk Toward Resilience

Like so many of you, in the last few weeks, there have been moments that my mind cannot comprehend. Where my heart shatters into a million...

Be the first to know

Sign up for our non-member email to learn more about featured content and upcoming events, and membership deals.