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Communication in a virtual world

Google has just published a study of working patterns among its 10,000 employees and the extent of ‘distributed working’ with remotely based colleagues and teammates is remarkable. 20% of working groups include people based in multiple physical locations. 48% of meetings involve employees who work from 2 or more buildings. 39% of meetings involve 2 or more cities and 30% involve 2 or more time zones.

Virtual interactions are almost as commonplace as traditional physical ones and remote working is becoming an integral part of organisational life. In some industries, unless the option to work from home is offered for at least some of the time, it is impossible to recruit good candidates for positions. Tech is the obvious example here, but even other ‘traditional’ industries are also catching up. This means the way we communicate with remotely based stakeholders and our understanding of how body language contributes to the relationships we can create – with colleagues and team members, suppliers, customers and potentially even prospective customers – is essential to get right. As Paul Watzlawick the psychologist famously said, “One cannot not communicate”.

For example, what is best practice for an educational webinar hosted by a subject matter expert and chaired by a magazine editor that is aimed at prospective customers? Or a weekly ‘catch up’ call between a line manager and team members, some of whom may be external suppliers? What about an email exchange between work colleagues? All these communication scenarios have unique requirements and not everyone is as well versed on the implications of how they are communicating – intentionally or otherwise – in a virtual setting as they could be. Let’s take some of these professional scenarios and go through the inadvertent cues that virtual body language, if unchecked, may be giving off.

The virtual presentation or conversation – Webinars, videos and conference calls

Giving a webinar or video conference sounds like it would be very straight forward, you just have to speak to the audience after all, but there’s a lot more to consider. The fact that the audience isn’t physically present makes it a lot more challenging for the presenter. Body language – in terms of gesticulations, facial expressions, eye contact, movement and tone of voice – are incredibly important to engage listeners and get the message across. Here are some pointers for successful video webinars and briefings.

When presenting at a distance it’s important for the audience to see you are involved and passionate about what you are saying. Moving around the room or stage is a very good way to demonstrate this. It also helps to ensure your voice sounds more authentic and credible. Think about it, when you are really involved in a discussion with friends, are you glued to the spot or moving around dynamically?

If you are presenting to a camera or speaking to colleagues via a laptop camera, ensure you are looking at them and maintaining some facial and eye contact. Direct eye contact may be intimidating, it is better to generally ‘look them in the face’ – it’s more trusting. They basically need to be able to see you are addressing them directly, paying attention when it’s their turn to talk and seeing your reaction to their comments. In a webinar context, this may require some rehearsing and ensuring that the camera is positioned correctly.

When presenting using slides, ensure that the audience knows exactly what to be looking at when you are speaking and that your message directly relates to what they can see on their screens. It sounds so obvious but this is one of the most common mistakes virtual presenters make, because their speech or script runs way ahead of their visual aids.

Create a sense of community by encouraging questions and participation, either at the end of the session or at regular intervals during the webinar or presentation. Never underestimate the value of small talk at the start. It’s especially important during regular team meetings held as a video conference – how else can people build bonds and get to know one another better?

One thing that is an increasingly common phenomenon in conference calls without video is ‘Continuous Partial Attention’, whereby a participant is clearly not concentrating fully on the discussion and has become otherwise engaged. We’ve all been there. Someone is droning on, it’s irrelevant to your work and you decide to check your emails quickly. Before you know it, you’ve lost the thread of the conversation and then someone is asking you a question. There’s an awkward pause before you get back on track. Once or twice it’s forgivable, but you notice this happens regularly, make a point of logging out of email and messaging applications to avoid distractions. It clearly shows disinterest and disengagement with the group and is rude.

The virtual written word – Emails, texts and messaging

You can tell a lot about a person from the way they communicate via chats, emails and texts and will potentially make judgments that may actually be ill-judged. However, without any other visual cues to inform opinions, it may be impossible to do otherwise.

Firstly, there needs to be a baseline. What’s normal for one person won’t be for others and that’s why some people come across so very differently when you get to meet them face to face. Secondly, cues cannot be taken in isolation and need to be read together in aggregate. Here’s what your behaviours in written virtual communication might be saying to recipients.

When people write the way they speak, it tends to suggest that they have a straightforward, no nonsense approach and this style is rapidly becoming the standard as an increasing amount of our interactions are online. It’s a good approach to cultivate in professional life.

Being short and curt tends to suggest someone is annoyed or displeased – either with the recipient or generally in a bad mood. Using too many abbreviations can also come across as negative and suggests that the sender has an inflated sense of importance. They are too busy to explain themselves fully, so the recipient has to manage with the bare minimum of information and work things out for themselves. This can suggest someone is rather self-centered. The opposite, being overly verbose, whilst it might be a bit unnecessary, tends to suggest someone is contented and happy so is preferable to curtness.

Especially precise use of grammar when writing can suggest the recipient is very precise and particular about things – possibly overly so – and can signify someone who is controlling and very obsessive or detail orientated.

Emoticons are often used to temper a message that’s either rude, slightly aggressive or controversial. They can be helpful in injecting a bit of softness, but can equally come across as passive aggressive. They are best avoided in favour of a more appropriate overall style – better to explain yourself fully and try to write as you would speak to the person directly.

Being overly expressive, either with flowery language or excessive punctuation, can suggest someone is attention seeking and needy. They want to be heard and see themselves as the centre of attention. That’s not an endearing trait. Overuse of capitals and exclamation marks fall into this category too.

Humour can be a good addition to texts and emails and can help to create a stronger bond and sense of trust, especially when it’s not targeted at anyone else and is genuinely self-deprecating.

What these communication tips highlight is that virtual body language is a very complex area. We are already seeing companies conducting as many as a third of all interactions remotely and that’s set to grow further. Understanding how to use body language to your advantage in a virtual setting will become an increasingly important skill in and is well worth getting to grips with.


Peter Clayton is a communications skills coach with Aziz Corporate and he specialises in virtual body language training for senior executives.


Further Reading

Is your leadership winning or floundering when it comes to virtual communication?

How to influence investors with an engaging results presentation

Presentation tips for non-native speakers


About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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