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Digital body language – how to communicate better online

As we work and live more on zoom, social media, email and text – rather than meeting up in person – we need to find new ways of talking to each other “virtually”.

In Word of Mouth, Michael Rosen gets advice on the best ways to communicate on-screen from Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.

Remote meetings can be inherently awkward

Roughly 70% of all communication among teams is now virtual, and the loss of non-verbal body cues is among the most overlooked reasons why employees in the workplace feel so disengaged from others.

Word of Mouth

Michael Rosen seeks out the best ways to communicate on-screen and avoid the pitfalls.

Whether it’s the screen-freezes, echo delays, or seeing our own face on the screen when we’re talking to others, “video meetings are different”, says Erica. “But we must remember that we can still build trust and connection, even on video.”

The author and keynote speaker shares her tips and tools for communicating clearly in this new digital landscape – regardless of distance.

Think like a TV show host

“We have to think more like TV show hosts than office meeting hosts,” says Erica. This means looking directly into the camera when we’re trying to build rapport. Even though we then can’t see the person we’re addressing, research shows they’re more likely to feel a sense of connection with us. “I recommend, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to build trust with someone new, to make eye contact into the camera on video meetings about 60 to 70% of the time,” advises Erica.

We should also sit far enough away from the camera that individuals can read our body language. “Not just your facial expressions but some of your hand gestures.”

Use the power of engagement

The video conferencing platforms we’re now using have tools like chat boxes, hand-raising buttons and breakout rooms, which can all encourage engagement. These are “true assets that will allow us to hear more voices; to enable introverts to share just as much as extroverts,” says Erica. They can be more inclusive for attendees with accents too.

“In many ways our video meetings can minimise many traditional body language biases that happen in physical meetings and create more inclusion if we use them intentionally.”

Break the ice

We are less likely to laugh and smile in a video meeting because we can’t pick up on “the vibe in the room”. And it can all feel a little stilted and strange.

“One of the ways we can overcome this is by creating intentional moments in our meetings for the water cooler effect,” says Erica. That might be the host doing a quick icebreaker at the beginning, someone telling a joke, or everyone sharing a win or challenge of the week. The more explicit and intentional we can be to bring humour and fun into our meetings, the more enjoyable they’ll become.

Appoint an MC

“Always appoint a moderator or an MC,” says Erica. On screen, it’s harder to read a furrowed brow or pursed lips or someone looking down at their phone, but an MC can make sure everyone present gets to speak, that we’re hearing from different voices, and we’re using the power of chat tools.

Make the implicit explicit

We need to “make what was implicit in traditional body language explicit in digital body language,” says Erica.

Finding our inner child can be helpful. Children learn to use their body language more intentionally – they wave to say goodbye, for example. Research has shown that in video meetings many of us now physically wave because we want to make it clear that we are leaving. We can also use the virtual hand symbol to indicate we want to speak, just like in the classroom.

Slow down

We honour the “power of the pause” when we’re in physical settings, says Erica. It allows everyone to digest thoughts and read body cues. But in video meetings, phone meetings, and with the pace of our digital communications, “the power of that delay gets misconstrued.” On video, if we don’t hear someone speak immediately, we ask them if they’re on mute!

Erica suggests practising what she calls “the five second rule”: “Wait five seconds before speaking to make sure individuals have time to process the ideas, especially if there may be technology or accessibility issues.”

Prioritise thoughtfulness over hastiness

A 2015 study found that 50% of all email responses were sent within an hour. These days, we expect replies to our emails and texts within hours or we worry that something is wrong.

“One of the greatest skills we must build in digital body language is to remember that less haste means more speed,” says Erica. “We want to prioritise thoughtfulness over hastiness.” That means not always rewarding the first person to respond to an email, or the person who jumps in on a zoom call the fastest, but creating intentional time for team members to think.

Give response time expectations

Some teams actually set response time expectations in the subject lines of emails. “4H” means I need this in 4 hours (it’s urgent); “2D” means I need this in two days (take some time to think about it); “ROM” means reply on Monday.

“Making more explicit some of these response time expectations can go a long way in prioritising thoughtfulness over hastiness,” says Erica.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Some of the above may not feel very natural to those of us who aren’t “digital natives” but “we must get comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Erica. Try new things. Remember we are all immigrants attempting to learn a new type of body language in a foreign, digital land.

How to avoid phrases that can instil a sense of dread...

If we can't read a room, we need to choose words which don't sound passive-aggressive.


According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50% of the time the tone of our emails is misinterpreted. If we’re talking to someone face to face and can see they are close to tears, or have eyebrows raised with excitement, we’ll respond accordingly. But “if we shoot off that email or text, we may have no idea the experience someone is having on the other side,” Erica flags.

Often, complex issues really require that tone of voice and inflection that you can’t get in written communication behind a screen.

When it comes to improving our tone, and avoiding common pitfalls, she has a few key tips.

  • Don’t respond to messages when you’re angry

“Make sure that you avoid responding to messages or emails when you’re angry or frustrated,” says Erica. Be thoughtful. Always stay in the place of reason and assume good intent, especially if the message you’ve received is confusing.

  • If you need to, switch the medium

If something is unclear to you, or the tone of the conversation has taken a nosedive, remember you can always switch the medium. Ask yourself, would this person respond better if I picked up the phone?

“Often, complex issues really require that tone of voice and inflection that you can’t get in written communication behind a screen,” says Erica. Picking up the phone can be worth a thousand emails.

  • Show appreciation

“Taking some time to be thoughtful in showing appreciation in our written messages can go a long way in reducing tone misinterpretation,” says Erica. For example: rather than asking “Why haven’t you finished this?” preface your query with praise: “Excellent job on this report. Do you think you might be able to let me know when you can finish this deliverable?” Even that simple change can make a big difference, says Erica.

  • Say thank you

“The art of simply saying thank you, or thank you so much, actually can carry a lot of weight,” says Erica. It can deepen a sense of empathy, even on email and text. One study showed that when using “thank you very much” versus a shorthand “thx” there is a significant difference in how the receiver interprets the tone.

  • Think about what channel you are using

When we send a text, we don’t need to say “Dear Mum” or sign off with “best wishes, from Dad” like we might on an email or letter. “A text is not the same as a handwritten letter and its actually better to be brief and to the point,” says Erica. “But when it comes to email you may want to be a bit more formal, especially in professional communications. Start with a 'Dear' or 'Hello'; end with a formal greeting – unless there is high trust and you know someone will assume good intent.”

  • Steer clear of irony

There are two questions you need to ask yourself when it comes to irony, says Erica. Who has more or less power? And how much do we trust each other? If there is high trust (perhaps you’ve worked together for years), it might feel quite comfortable to use irony in an email. “However, if there is less power or low trust, err on the side of formality.”

  • Avoid phrases that can instil a sense of dread

Avoid phrases like “As per my previous email”, “I’ll take it from here”, “Am I missing something?” or “Just a gentle reminder…”. When working on a screen we can’t “read the room” and tell whether someone is genuinely attempting to use formal language, or being passive aggressive.

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