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Carol Kinsey GomanAs more interactions move from in-person environments to online events, your ability to project virtual leadership presence is quickly becoming the key to your continued success.

Whether you’re interviewing for a new job, presenting to the executive team or facilitating a team meeting, you’re most influential when you express your core values and show up as your best authentic self.

So the most powerful body language advice I can give is to believe in yourself, trust your instincts, and allow your natural friendliness, compassion and credibility to shine through.

There is, however, added value in knowing which of your body language habits is reinforcing people’s positive perception of you as a leader – and which habits may be sending the wrong message.

Here are body language hacks for your next Zoom event:

Make a positive first impression

Just as in a physical meeting, first impressions matter. It takes less than seven seconds for people to make judgments about your attitude, level of confidence, professional status and personal warmth.

While a face-to-face meeting gives you added opportunities (entering the conference room, shaking hands with an interviewer, greeting individual members at a team meeting, etc.), on a computer screen, it’s only your visual image that sets that initial impression.

So here are a few things you need to do:

  • Take a few minutes before your meeting starts to think about what you want to accomplish, why it’s important to the attendees and why you’re invested in the topic of this event. Doing so will help your facial expressions and initial gestures to automatically align with your intent.
  • Dress for virtual success by avoiding clothing with tight patterns, as they jump around on camera. Solid colours work best. If it’s appropriate for the event, your outfit can be very casual, as long as you make sure that your grooming and wardrobe reinforce your professional image.
  • Right before the meeting or interview begins, take five deep breaths. This silent breathing technique is a secret weapon of all on-camera hosts and presenters to help them get centred and focused.
  • Start with a smile. Some non-verbal behaviours can bring out the best in us. Smiling is one of them, as it directly influences how other people respond. When you smile at someone, in person or virtually, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, your smile makes you and your audience feel more upbeat and positive.

Realize which non-verbal habits get in your way

The impact of your non-verbal behaviour relies less on what you mean by the signal you send and more on what the observer thinks you mean. That’s why you need to realize how your body language is most likely being read.

And, by the way, since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, what people unconsciously look for and react to the most are signs that you’re in a bad mood, fearful, unsure or upset.

Here are a few body language habits that can send the wrong message:

  • You may be more comfortable with your arms crossed but crossing arms is almost always perceived as a closed sign of resistance.
  • You may naturally slump when seated, but when you collapse in your chest and round your shoulders, you minimize your leadership presence by appearing less confident and competent than you really are.
  • When we’re nervous, we all tend to pacify with some form of self-touching or soothing behaviour such as rubbing hands together, drumming fingers, playing with jewelry, twirling hair, fidgeting, rocking or swaying. When you exhibit any of these pacifying gestures virtually, they are amplified and people begin to wonder why you’re so nervous.
  • You (like I) may habitually talk using a lot of hand motion. But sweeping gestures that continually go out of camera range quickly become annoying.
  • Remember, too, that nothing kills credibility faster than letting your voice rise at the end of a sentence, as if asking a question. When making a declarative statement, be sure to use the authoritative arc of your voice starts at one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

Send both sets of leadership presence signals

Leadership presence is represented by two sets of non-verbal signals.

One set of signals conveys status, authority and power. These are the powerful signals many of the leaders I coach display naturally.

But the first thing people look for (especially now, when empathy has never been more important) is a collection of pro-social signals that show your warmth, empathy and inclusiveness. In a team meeting, for example, attendees will be looking to be reassured that you understand and care about them, that you value their input and that you have their best interests at heart.

To signal both confidence and warmth, send a combination of signals:

  • You appear at your empathetic and inclusive best when you stay relaxed, keeping your movements small, slow and within the computer screen. If you gesture with open palms, you’ll send the ultimate “see, I have nothing to hide” signal. When you keep your elbows in line with your shoulders to make smaller gestures, you also appear self-assured and collected.
  • Especially in times of uncertainty, it’s a leadership necessity to show genuine interest by giving whomever is speaking your full attention. When we are face-to-face, eye contact makes that connection; to make virtual eye contact, remember to look at the camera as much as possible. You can also show engagement by leaning slightly forward as someone speaks, nodding in agreement or tilting your head in the universal signal of giving someone your ear.
  • Because so many of the non-verbal cues we use to assess a speaker are unavailable in a virtual environment (the main reason for ‘Zoom fatigue’), your audience’s brains have to work harder to understand the full meaning of your remarks. You’ll connect with people even more positively if you wait a few seconds between phrases to let them absorb and analyze what you’ve just said.
  • The best tip for looking confident in a virtual meeting is to sit with good posture: facing the screen with shoulders squared, head straight and feet flat on the ground. In fact, someone viewing you for the first time will make judgments about your leadership presence based more on your posture than on your actual role or title. A side benefit is that good posture tends to make you feel more self-assured.

In person or online, you’re communicating over two channels: verbal and non-verbal. While you’re speaking, your audience is simultaneously assessing your tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture for clues about your credibility, warmth, power and sincerity.

Body language savvy can be your key to strengthening business relationships, presenting your ideas with more impact and projecting leadership presence on Zoom.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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