As a leader, you’ve likely put a considerable amount of time and conscious effort into developing your “executive presence” - understanding the impressions you make, your impact on those around you, and the techniques you use to control a room. But what happens when the “room” you’re trying to control isn’t a room at all, but a group of faces on a screen?
While organizations shift to permanent work from home (WFH) or hybrid business models, you may find that your previous methods of confident communication are ineffective or blunted. Your webcam, in effect, may be robbing you of credibility. But at a time of insecurity and confusion, the need for leaders who inspire confidence is greater than ever before.
Here are three tips and tricks for maintaining - and even improving - your executive presence in a virtual space.
Using Your Online Body Language
Establishing your executive presence is about more than just conveying authority and power. At a time when people are looking for empathy, it’s important that leaders also signal kindness, warmth, and compassion. Your colleagues want to know that you understand them, that you value them, and you have their best interests at heart.
Remember that you are communicating over two channels: verbal and nonverbal. Audiences are assessing tone, expressions, gestures, and posture to understand your level of sincerity and your power status. It’s important to be smart about your online body language and presentation. This will help you build relationships, project leadership presence, and present impactful ideas.
Here are some tips for using your body to signal both strength and warmth:
- As a leader, you want to project a sense of calmness (but not necessarily stillness), especially in times of uncertainty. Keep your movements small, slow, and inside the screen area. Keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders will help you make smaller gestures, presenting as self-assured and collected.
- Because it’s so easy to “zone out” on an online call, it’s important to physically show people that you are listening and engaged when they speak. Lean forward slightly, nod your head, or tilt towards the camera to show that they have your ear. Try to look at the camera as much as possible to make “virtual eye contact,” but remember that this can also make the speaker feel awkward, so assess and change tactics as needed.
- When speaking, take a few seconds to pause between phrases to let your audience absorb and analyze what you’ve just said. Your audience will need the extra time for their brains to catch up, since so many of the nonverbal cues we use in conversation are missing in a virtual environment.
- Above all, use good posture - shoulders square, head straight, feet on the ground. Sit (or stand) at the camera like someone with confidence, and you will project that image.
Control Your Visual - And Your Audio
It’s happened to all of us - you think you’re looking professional and ready to present, but your camera seems to tell a different story than your mirror.
Part of the problem is technological - you need to ditch your laptop webcam.
Laptop webcams tend to do poorly in low-light situations and provide low-resolution images. But the camera itself isn’t the biggest problem, the problem is where the webcam is positioned and the angle it shows. Think about your favorite pictures of yourself. How many of them show you close-up from below, looking up at your chin? A world of difference can come from a higher-power webcam and tripod/webcam stand - so you can face the meeting head-on.
If you don’t want to spend money on a new webcam, you can try just elevating your laptop with a box or an angled stand - but that can bring its own limits and problems.
While you’re upgrading, pay attention to your surroundings, your space, and how you look on-camera. How’s the light in your home office? Webcams only know how to focus on what’s lit up. Everything that isn’t touched by light will be lost. If your main light source is behind you, like a window, you will disappear into a silhouetted blob. If the camera lights up one side of your face, the other side will be lost.
This problem can be solved by just moving a few lamps onto your desk, but if you really want to go the extra mile, you can invest in some desktop lighting equipment like those used by professional YouTube personalities. There are lighting guides for home-video all over the internet, and decent lighting setups can be priced at $30-$100.
If you’re having fun buying gear, a green screen can also be purchased for less than $100, and you can implement virtual backgrounds that represent your professional brand and don’t feel “fakey” and awkward.
But looking good is only half the battle - your appearance doesn’t matter on Zoom if no one wants to listen to you. Your phone headset or laptop mic simply can’t deliver the audio quality needed to command a meeting. If people don’t like listening to you, they won’t.
Would you listen to a podcast or a radio host with tinny, echo-ey audio? Of course not. So do what they do, buy a quality USB microphone, and make sure you understand how to use it. Using a high-quality mic, with proper settings and placement, can make your voice stand out in meetings. If you’re the person who sounds the best, people are more likely to listen to you.
Get Comfortable in the Discomfort
You influence people the most when you’re true to yourself, but it can feel uncomfortable to “be yourself” on camera. People act differently when cameras are on them. It’s harder to feel natural when you’re aware you’re being watched, and it’s also harder to listen to others when your attention is so fixated. When you have a real-life conversation with someone, you probably don’t spend the entire time looking directly at their face, and yet, that’s exactly what video conferences expect you to do.
All of this makes video conferencing uniquely tiring. Your brain is actually working harder (and getting tired faster) on a video conference than in a regular conversation.
How do you prepare for this? The same way you prepare for a marathon or any other physically exerting challenge: Practice and training.
Once you have your equipment set up (or while you’re setting up), practice talking to your camera. Right down a few stock phrases that you might say in a meeting, and record yourself saying them to the camera. (Your webcam likely comes with recording software but if not, Bandicam is a good free option.)
Watch yourself on playback. Look at your mannerisms. Ask yourself, is this a person I would listen to? Find your tics, your “ums,” your stopping points, and practice being mindful of them.
Then, try recording yourself while on a call with someone you care about - a friend or family member (with their permission, of course.) How do you behave differently in a more comfortable, casual chat? Do you feel more like yourself? How does your vocal/body behavior reflect that, and can you emulate it in a work setting?
More importantly, what do you look like when you’re listening to someone else speaking? What does your body do that indicates to your friend that you are engaged and listening to them? Replicate that behavior the next time one of your colleagues is presenting, you will help them and yourself greatly.
Try different physical settings as well. If you angle the camera so that it’s not head-on, but rather looking at the side of your face, or coming at you from a 45-degree angle, you may feel more comfortable during periods where you aren’t talking, and your turn towards the camera will feel more deliberate and commanding.
No one solution is going to work for everyone, but it’s up to you to develop a system that makes you feel like you’re in control of a call - because eventually, you will be.
The shift to digital meetings has been a tough adaptation for some, particularly extroverts who thrive on audience feedback. But it also presents an opportunity: Since everyone is in the same awkward position of working from home, there’s a more level playing field to stick out and show yourself as a leader. It’s easier than you think to stand out and exude leadership presence in virtual meetings. You just need to put in some time and effort to implement smart solutions.
Martin Schneider is a content specialist and career coach who has helped hundreds of job-seekers find their place and improved hiring methods at dozens of companies. He writes about the world of work for Careerminds and takes the mystery out of the career-transition process. Follow him on LinkedIn.