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Communicating Virtually? Body Language Counts

2 min read

People don’t say, “he seems tired” or “he needs to sit up straight” –they start to call into question his credibility and even his character.

“This stuff about body language is spot on, really useful,” says the English guy in the audience. “But I spend most of my time on conference calls, so I don’t think it applies. Do you have anything about presence on the phone?”

I’m presenting to a group of twenty-five high potential leaders at a large pharmaceutical company in the Boston area. Everyone else in the audience nods their head vigorously at David’s comment.

“Want to try something, David?” I ask in reply. I ask him to turn his chair around, away from the group. “Can you do me a favor and sit in ‘low presence’ in your chair and we’ll improvise a phone call?”

David slumps low in his chair, puts his head back and starts to fidget with his pen.

“Ring, ring!” I say.

“This is David,” he replies in a mumble, as if he I’ve just awakened him.

“We’re meeting now, right?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah. Right. Okay. I wanted to talk to you about that spreadsheet you sent last week. I just got to it…and I had some questions…and wait, let me just find it on my desktop (long pause). Here it is. I guess I sort of wanted to hear about the meeting budget for next year and I don’t really know where you got some of these numbers….”

He trails off. He has just done an impression of either a 14-year-old boy or someone who hasn’t slept in several days. His energy is low, his speech is mumbled and qualified and he keeps sighing.

We debrief. I ask the audience how they perceived David’s presence on the improvised call.

“It’s like he doesn’t care.”

“He seems really disorganized.”

“I wouldn’t trust him with the budget numbers.”

I’m always amazed by this; people don’t say, he seems tired or he needs to sit up straight, they instead start to call into question his credibility and even his character.

Now you might say that this is an extreme example. Most professionals do not sit in their swivel chairs like they are at home watching TV. But I have witnessed managers cross their legs and lean back in their chair while they are leading a call and all of a sudden they are talking too much and too long, and a lackadaisical tone has crept into their voice.

I’m a stickler about this for myself; before I dial into the conference line I conduct this 3-point checklist –

  1. Feet flat on the floor.
  2. Sitting on the edge of my chair.
  3. Straight spine.

This 3-point system helps me to breathe more deeply, speak with a stronger voice, and in general keeps me alert and present during lengthy or high-stakes calls.

Try it. It takes a bit of effort at first, but muscle memory takes over pretty quickly. I’m at the point where I automatically adjust my body language as I am dialing. The result is that I show up with more presence and energy for my clients and colleagues, which they translate into credibility and character.


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