5 Body Language Cues That Will Help You Become a Video Call Expert

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Man wearing headset starting video call greeting colleagues

Have you ever heard of the 7-38-55 rule? 

According to studies conducted in 1971 by Psychologist Albert Mehrabian, effective face to face communication is made up of 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% the words we actually choose to speak. While these numbers are still widely debated in the world of psycholinguistics, the importance of body language in day-to-day communication is undeniable. 

You’re likely to have heard about the importance of nonverbal cues and body language in the workplace. Knowing what to look out for when it comes to these nonverbal cues is key. For example, do you know what signs to look for if the other person wants to say something but is too polite to interrupt you? Or how to check that someone understood what you just said?

Whether you’re in a formal business meeting or a casual catch-up with a coworker, there are some simple nonverbal stimuli to look out for in day-to-day life which come in super handy when you’re on a video call too.  

The future of video calls 

Body language and knowledge of how to read these non-verbal cues arguable become more and more important as we increasingly use hosted software. With business teams increasingly using video conferencing tools in a new world of a distributed workforce, video calls are likely to become a well-established and integral part of our working week. 

With features such as screen sharing, document annotation and team messaging as well as video calling all in one user-friendly platform, software such as RingCentral Video truly helps teams collaborate and work effectively together from a distance. 

Effective team communication and collaboration is now moulding into a different shape, making it very important for teams to glean a little knowledge of the everyday nonverbal cues we all portray as well as receive. 

In this post, we’ll look at: 

  1. The importance of body language in conversation

  2. Five nonverbal cues to look for on a video call

The importance of body language in conversation

According to organisational behaviour expert Dr Edward G. Wertheim, there are five key nonverbal communication cues: 

  • Repetition and confirmation (for reinforcement of a verbal point) 
  • Contradiction. Our body language can be very exposing if we say something dishonest!
  • Substitution. For example, nodding is a nonverbal substitute for agreement, or the word ‘yes’
  • Complementing: It can add a different dimension to what you’re saying, acting as a companion piece to the verbal counterpart.
  • Accenting: Your body language can add that extra oomph to what you’re verbally communicating.

So let’s take a look at how some of these might come into play on a video call.

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5 nonverbal cues to look for during your next video call

The use of backchannels

Backchannelling is a signal made to communicate comprehension. These can be either made verbally with the ‘Mhmm’s and ‘Uh huh’s we use in day to day conversations, but they can also be nonverbal signals such as nodding. The latter is key in video call communications as it tells us our fellow conference call participants have heard and understood. 

Katie Fitzpatrick, a sign language interpreter and adjunct professor at Madonna University, says that in online meetings, it can be difficult to express our thoughts as clearly as they appear in our heads. Things get lost in translation. So, she recommends paying attention to the other people in your meeting and making sure that you’re getting these backchannels as you’re speaking, even if it’s just someone nodding as you speak. “It does not mean that they agree with you,” says Katie, “But just nodding along to understand and show acknowledgement of what’s being said.”

The secrets of the shoulders

While many of us might focus on eye contact and facial expressions (also very important.. stay tuned), it’s important not to neglect the shoulders and general posture when it comes to nonverbal communications. Our shoulders can say a lot without us physically saying anything. 

According to Laurie Achin, a deaf faculty member in Northeastern University’s American Sign Language department, “frustration is all in the shoulders. When someone’s shoulders are tensed, or scrunched up towards their ears, they are uncomfortable or frustrated. When the shoulders are relaxed and back, the person is content.”

Eye contact 

Granted, actual eye-to-eye contact is more difficult maintain in an on-screen environment (technically you’ll be looking at the computer screen- not into the other person’s eyes), but what we mean is, your eyes or those of your fellow participants should be on the screen (or camera) to indicate that you are paying attention. 

Eye contact is arguably one of the most important forms of nonverbal communication as it tells us that people are paying attention to what is being said. On a video call, rather than a simple audio call, we can see exactly when participants lose focus or stop paying attention altogether. 

Another reason that this is key, is so that you can see the body language of your fellow call participants. Keep an eye out for classic mirroring body language which we use both consciously and subconsciously in everyday face-to-face interchanges. Don’t forget, as per the above- keep an eye on those sneaky shoulders too!  

Tuning in to tone 

Ever heard the classic ‘it’s not what you say it’s how you say it’? 

Well, it’s amazing how accurate that is in terms of the messaging we convey in day to day life. Tone, volume, flow, inflection, and emphasis all convey an incredible amount of emotion when we verbally communicate. In fact, if you tune in, you can often tell a lot about someone’s state of mind based on the tone of their voice. 

The sound of our voices and how we ‘carry’ and deliver our words can have a surprising impact on how we are (often subconsciously) perceived. Even the numerous variations of UK accents can carry perceptions of trustworthiness or untrustworthiness. 

We’re not suggesting you try to change your natural accent of course, but next time you’re on a call, pay attention to the way you deliver the words and try to tune in more to the sound your colleagues’ voices. 

Do you naturally pay more attention to someone else on the conference call because they have a sing-song lilt or inject volume or enthusiasm? Do you switch off if someone delivers their presentation in a flat, unvaried, monotonal way? Tuning in to tone can be an extremely helpful tool when it comes to conference calls and video calls. 

Face value 

While the face is the key thing we focus on during in-person communications, it is arguably also one of the more ambiguous aspects of communication, particularly on a video call. In formal circumstances, many of us try to ‘keep a straight face’ to avoid exposing our true feelings and, to a certain extent, it’s easy to censor our facial expressions. 

Little do we know, the expressions on our faces can also be very revealing if others learn to notice them. 

Did you know that there are 7 universal micro-expressions? These are the set of emotions we show on our faces subconsciously. They can occur as quickly as a quarter of a second, which makes recognising them very tricky. The 7 micro-expressions are as follows:  

  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Learning to read these is challenging- but would arguably be one of the most powerful tools in the video call arsenal. 

So when faces might not be in HD (and certainly won’t be as clear as they are during in-person meetings) subtle nuances and facial micro-expressions are easier to miss. This means it’s important to use and look out for facial expressions to help conversations flow and to observe and understand how your coworkers might be feeling about the content of what you’re actually saying.

Next time you’re on a video call, have a go at trying to catch your colleagues in a micro expression, or use the recording feature to record your face whilst watching a test YouTube video for example.  

Being able to perceive these subtle nonverbal cues is one of the most powerful ways we can nail the art of video conferencing. You may feel that you’re a great listener, but really tuning in to what people don’t say, learning to observe the more subtle stimuli and nuances of posture, tone and facial expressions can truly improve the effectiveness of your team’s communication.

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Originally published Sep 03, 2020, updated Jan 17, 2023

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