Non-Verbal Skills for Virtual Team Leaders

OK, I know this title may sound a little odd – what’s the point of non-verbal communication on virtual teams?  But there are actually several ways that this is important, and by the end of this post, we’ll cover eight techniques to improve your ability to communicate effectively without saying a word, even when our teammates are miles away.

[Watch the video above or read the transcript below]

Non-Verbals for Virtual Leaders

In the real world, experts tell us that non-verbal communication accounts for the great majority of the total content of our communication.  It stands to reason, then, that the more important the message, the more visual and auditory clues we want to be able to include in the conversation. 

That’s a big reason for why, when it comes to important, sensitive, or complex topics like performance evaluation, bringing change, or soliciting feedback, we want to address them in person if we can.  We want all possible non-verbal cues available to help us get the message across.

When that’s not possible, we want to pick the most robust tool we can find, and high-quality video becomes the medium of choice.  But the moment we switch to a virtual system a few things change that are worth keeping in mind.

Changes in the Virtual World

First, the camera lens doesn’t typically move around, so some of the signals we are naturally sending suddenly become unavailable.  The things we do with our feet, body, or sometimes even hands can no longer help us deliver the message.  And as more and more of those information sources disappear, we tend to place greater importance on the few non-verbal clues that remain.  That means we should pay even more attention to what does make it through to the other side of the camera.

And second, it can help to think of the world of non-verbals as more than just about us.  Everything else that’s on screen is communicating, too.  If we’re paying attention, we can use that fact to help us be clear.  If we aren’t, it may make things harder.

So with that as background, lets talk about eight ways to consider the importance of non-verbal communication in our virtual conversations.

8 Non-Verbal Techniques

Non-verbal Skills - Messy Office Background1.  Shape the Surroundings.  To begin with, we’re not the only thing that will be on camera when the lights come on.  What’s in the background conveys a lot of information, too.  Rather than a dirty kitchen, dark living room, or messy office, we can set a better tone if we position things so we are well-lit in front of a background that we stand out against.  Consider a simple wall, or bookshelf.  We want the focus on us, not on distractions behind us.

2.  Set the lens.  The distance from the camera lens to us is important.  Too close and we look like a giant head on the screen, kind of like the ones in the opening sequence of the Brady Bunch.  Not only is that a little awkward, it deprives us of the opportunity to use our upper body to help convey our message.  On the other hand, too far away, and we appear distant, uninterested, audio quality is likely to drop off, and while our teammates may be able to see all of us, if they can’t see our eyes and read our face, we’re going to lose them.

Aim for something in the middle.  Ideally, if they can see the top third of our bodies we’ll have the best chance of making that virtual connection and sharing the most non-verbal clues possible.  Set the lens so that the top of your head is close to the top of the frame, and your upper arms are visible.

Non-verbal skills - seasonal socks3.  Suit up.  It’s a good idea to dress for the occasion.  Even if we’re tuning in from home, if we are hoping for a professional discussion then a way to get that feeling going is to dress like we are expecting it.  We might feel more comfortable in our favorite seasonal socks, but it’s better to make sure that what’s on camera reflects the kind of discussion we want to have.

4.  Speak to the camera.  Eye contact with the camera is critical.  We wouldn’t stare at our notes when engaging someone in normal conversation, so we shouldn’t do it when on video either.  One Forbes article concluded that effective business conversations require us to hold eye contact 30-60 percent of the time. 

If it helps, mount a photo of the team right above the camera to help visualize who you’re talking with.  If possible, co-locate the camera with the screen that shows our audience, but if we have to choose, when talking, speak to the camera, not to the screen.

Non-verbals Sit Up5.  Sit up.  Whether you’re on video or not, watch that posture.  Slumping in our chairs, or kicking back signals a lack of interest or focus.  Sitting up and leaning forward tells people we’re engaged and involved mentally and physically.  This is a good practice even when the cameras are off because our body posture will be reflected in our speaking patterns.  When our bodies are engaged, our minds are more likely to be energized, and our teams will be able to sense that.

6.  Show your arms.  We can do ourselves a favor if our arms are visible.  Aside from our face, they may be the best tools we have for helping to express what we have to say, so it pays to be conscious of what they are telling others. 

Our folded or crossed arms may be telling the team that we are not receptive or interested. Open and visible shows a willingness to listen.  Palms up is a way of inviting input from others.  There’s lots more to this, but the key takeaway here is that if hide our arms, they can’t help us speak.

7.  Smile.  Our faces convey a lot of information even when we are not speaking.  So we have to be conscious about what message we are sending.  An eye roll, a frown, or even a slight eyebrow raise may carry more weight than we think it does. 

Non-verbal On the Big ScreenOn top of that, we might be in a small office with our laptop, but others may be watching us on a large monitor, or even projected on a large screen in a conference room somewhere.  That smirk may be two or three times as big to some of our teammates.

8.  Slow down.  I’m not talking about dragging things out here, but especially if this is a first-time event, nerves may be a little jittery, and when we’re nervous we tend to want to rush things.  Of course, we do want to make efficient use of our time, but it’s not a race to the finish.  Take a deep breath, focus on the topic of discussion, and think of it as a normal conversation.

Non-Verbal Virtual Communication – The Takeaway

When we are constrained by technology to lead our teams, there is a big impact on our ability to communicate effectively.  An often-overlooked aspect of that communication is what we are saying non-verbally.

But if we pay attention to what we look like on screen, and think a little bit about the non-verbal signals that we are sending, we stand a much better chance of getting across that message we hoped to.

NOTE:  This video is part of the online course I’ve developed called Leading Virtual Teams – Keys to Leadership Success in the Virtual World.  Click for more free videos and information about the course, or share with someone you think might benefit from this.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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