Body Language for the New Workplace

04 Aug, 2022


Body Language for the New Workplace

July/August 2022

Appearing relaxed and being relaxed are not the same thing, which is worth remembering as we return to the office and to making in-person presentations. This applies as well as we continue to display our head and shoulders during Zoom calls, which for now have an established place in the way we conduct business.

Coming across to others as casual, in what seems like an increasingly informal business culture, can take preparation. And the change didn’t come about just because of COVID-19, when we’ve gotten used to padding around our home offices in sweats, taking naps whenever we want, and working late into the night. Business-appropriate clothing styles have loosened up (men in The Office, which wrapped in 2013, all wear suits), and so have the ways we present ourselves to professional colleagues.

Slouching Toward Informality

“The move toward informality in a business setting actually started well before the lockdown,” says Christine Clapp, founder and CEO of Spoken with Authority, a Washington-based presentation-skills consultancy.

“I trace it to 2006, more or less, with the rise of TED Talks.” TED Talks were not only more informal — with the presenter bounding about the stage carrying a water bottle — but “story-driven, relying less on facts and figures than previous business presentations, and in that sense they also tended to be more personal.”

This shift toward the personal accelerated when people started working from home, and in virtual meetings we began to see our co-workers’ children and pets, sometimes in their kitchens. “Another factor is the recognition of the importance of inclusion,” Clapp says. “It was important to present our ‘authentic self’ to our co-workers.”

So what does this perfect storm of informality mean for not just how we dress but how we interact in the office — and in virtual meetings? Informal, as experienced TED talkers know, does not mean spontaneous, unrehearsed and off the cuff.

Flight or Fight

“If you are not comfortable and have not internalized the points you want to make in a presentation, it will show — even if you aren’t aware of it yourself,” Clapp says. “When people are inexperienced or insufficiently prepared, their brains take them to flight-or-fight mode, because they are being watched and feel vulnerable. They become like a prey animal on the African savanna.”

That’s why they “unconsciously do things to make themselves seem smaller,” Clapp explains. “They hunch up their shoulders and make what I think of as ‘T. rex’ gestures with their arms. They seem frantic and talk too fast, the pitch of their voice increases. To appear calm and open and purposeful — besides being thoroughly familiar with their material — they need to stand with their feet hip-width apart and relax the shoulders, with their hands hanging at their sides.”

Over the Top

Presenters need to project enthusiasm, even if they feel like they are overdoing it. “I’ve noticed, watching Shark Tank, how the sharks will give a break to the people seeking an investment if the presentation is cheesy and over the top but won’t give a break to people who seem bored, like they don’t really care,” Clapp says. “But this is important: Your perception of the passion you project is much higher than the audience’s perception of it. You might think you’re a 7, say, but the audience will rate you as a 3.”

And there is no substitute for preparation, which involves not only a command of the message but also practice. “We recommend at least six rehearsals for a small presentation and maybe 20 or more for a large audience or a TED Talk-like setting,” Clapp says.

Virtual meetings, of course, require a different kind of presentation — but one that is thoughtful and well designed. Again, just because you might be in your home office, wearing pajama bottoms and a blouse or dress shirt, doesn’t mean you don’t have to give serious thought to what participants in the meeting actually can see and hear.

Conrad Tolosa, the Council’s senior manager, web and media production, has made a kind of informal (that word again!) study of virtual meetings and offers useful advice. Again, informality is not a license to be sloppy or unprofessional.

Tips for Zoom

Little things that might seem insignificant and “natural” can be big mistakes, Tolosa says. “Don’t drink out of a thermos or water bottle during a Zoom call. To drink out of a thermos or water bottle, you have to tip your head back and the other participants get to see your neck or up your nose. It’s just unprofessional. Sip out of a coffee mug, which we’re used to seeing on TV talk shows.

“Don’t rely on your laptop camera and stare into the eyes of other participants, thinking you’re making eye contact with them, because you’re not making eye contact with any of them. It’s better to stare into the camera, but unless you put the laptop on a stack of maybe eight books, the camera angle will be all wrong. Other participants will be looking up and under at you, and there will be a double-chin effect, which nobody wants.”

Tolosa also finds that people routinely slouch, hunch their shoulders or put their elbows on their desk. “To avoid the slouch, they should sit on the very edge of their chair,” he says. “As for lighting, think of a TV studio, where there are many lights from several angles, which is always better than one light in front of your face, which creates shadows on your face. Facing a window is good because it usually means many sources of light that is diffused. You need good audio and video — which usually involves some small investment on your part — and good framing. By framing, I mean your posture and how you present yourself physically.”

Clapp offers additional recommendations. “Sit in a stationary chair, not one with wheels or that swivels, which can be distracting,” she says. “If your gestures are outside the camera frame, people won’t be able to see them, so keep them closer to the shoulders than ordinary. It’s almost the opposite of what you should do before an in-person audience. If you rely on the mic in your laptop, the other people on the call will be able to hear the fan and the sound of your typing. If you have notes to refer to, don’t put them on your lap or the keyboard; tape them at eye level to the wall in front of you, so you can glance at them and then glance right back to the camera. Silence your mobile devices, because the ping-ping-ping of them can be distracting, too.”

Your ‘Professional Wardrobe’

Clapp says, “You need a professional setup with the proper audiovisual equipment. From now on, we should think of this equipment as a part of our professional wardrobe. The genie is out of the bottle, and there is no going back.”

Additional Resources

Related Article: What to Wear? What to Wear!

Related Article: How the Pandemic Has Really Changed Us

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