(One who has had kinesics training, that is.)
Unless you’re an actor or a news anchor, you probably never thought you’d spend large chunks of your workday in front of a camera. Thanks to the COVID pandemic, of course, video calls are now so common that “Zoom fatigue” has made its way into the vernacular. There’s no denying that videoconferencing is beneficial: It’s cost effective, efficient, and keeps us physically distanced and safe from viruses. It also may be hurting your business. That’s because our ability to accomplish critical tasks like closing sales, recruiting talent and securing funding is heavily influenced by nonverbal communication. In this regard, video calls aren’t doing us any favors.
Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea video was even a problem (except that I was suddenly self-conscious about a double chin I never knew I had). That changed when I talked to Christianne Klein, an Emmy® and Edward R. Murrow Award–winning network news anchor and the founder and CEO of Truth Fairy. While serving as an expert for a piece I was writing on managing hybrid teams, the former correspondent for ABC News and Good Morning America told me about kinesics, the study of body language as a form of nonverbal communication. I was so intrigued by the possibility that a few simple adjustments could improve business outcomes that we set up a separate interview to discuss the topic.
What, exactly, does kinesics have to do with business outcomes?
Plenty, as it turns out. Research has shown that nonverbal communication is responsible for conveying much of our meaning. In other words, your audience may interpret your message differently than you intended them to for a number of reasons. “Every time you appear onscreen, your audience tunes in to your body language and forms judgments before you even open your mouth,” said Klein. “Your actions are amplified and often misinterpreted, while other ‘in-person’ signals are lost or diminished.”
Klein discovered kinesics by accident while working as a TV journalist. “Network anchors and major market anchors used to spend a significant amount of time with consultants who would explain the psychological impact of on-camera actions, but that hasn’t happened in years,” she said. Early in her career, she found herself asking for the teleprompter to be adjusted so she could read it more easily. “I was stopped by a colleague who told me that I couldn’t angle it the way I wanted. ‘It makes you look arrogant,’ he said. ‘This is the angle you need as a news anchor. It shows you’re in control and have authority on the subject you’re talking about.’”
From that point on, Klein set out to learn as much as she could about how our actions are perceived ‘inside the box.’ She pointed out that on business calls, our audience typically sees us from the chest up, which means we lose two-thirds of our body language. That can have serious consequences: Klein told me about a top recruit who declined a job offer because she felt the hiring manager on the call was ‘arrogant.’
It’s easy to see how video calls are becoming an increasing problem for communicators. “When the pandemic lockdown started, experts in their field were suddenly thrust into this new world of virtual interactions and were struggling to connect in the same way they do in person,” Klein said. “We call it kinesics ‘inside the box,’ because the body language that we normally read in person is limited to a headshot, which magnifies and distorts your actions. Every shoulder raise, uncomfortable movement or break in eye contact becomes heightened and harms your ability to communicate effectively.”
Aside from helping business leaders understand the psychological impact of their actions on camera, Klein’s company teaches them how to communicate authentically and to project confidence. The goal: to make sure you’re as effective in virtual interactions as you are in person. “The camera angles alone that we discuss—authority angle, arrogance angle, weakness angle and others—immediately change people’s perceptions of the speaker. It’s very powerful.”
When I mentioned that I have a hard time concentrating on my audience sometimes because I’m stressed about my own image—and that I had a big industry podcast coming up—Klein offered me an on-camera coaching session that was every bit as powerful as she’d promised. Here are my takeaways.
The Right Tools Make a Difference
Before our session, Klein asked me to order an 18-inch ring light and a video camera. (Once she told me about the difference proper lighting and camera angles make, I was happy to fork over the cash.) The camera attaches inside the ring light, which sits on a tripod. Klein told me to set up the contraption directly in front of where I sit for video calls—she uses a standing desk herself—so that my eyes were two-and-a-half feet away from the camera lens. I then needed to make sure I would be eye level with the camera when sitting upright so that I could look directly at the lens. “This will put your head in good alignment with the ring light for the halo effect,” she said. “You’re looking for an image of yourself from your chest up with about an inch of head room at the top. If you can see the floor or ceiling, you’ve framed your shot wrong.”
Building a Better Backdrop Is a Must
With my new light and camera in place, I was ready for my coaching session. I was feeling pleased with the vast improvement in my appearance, but I soon learned my backdrop needed attention, too. I had been sitting in front of a bank of windows surrounded by my kids’ drawings and a huge clock in the shape of a manatee—distracting, to say the least. Klein recommends that her clients create a dedicated videoconference space that is personalized for their profession. Her own backdrop includes handsome shelves displaying books she’s authored, a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, small plants and other tasteful knickknacks. Worried about space? Don’t be. “You need just 2.5 feet from you to the camera and then from you to the wall,” Klein said. “A laundry room can work, as long as your background is professional—no clutter, no sensitive documents lying around, and no Kama Sutra unless you’re a sex therapist.” You don’t need much of a budget, either. Klein purchased her shelves, and the adhesive lights she uses to illuminate each one, inexpensively on Amazon.
Klein also said it’s important to make sure no pets or kids walk through the space while you’re presenting, as it is distracting. (I’d always been lax about this since my colleagues and I get a kick out of glimpsing each other’s personal lives.) This is also why windows aren’t a good idea: Imagine trying to close a deal while your neighbor is in your frame riding back and forth on his lawnmower?
Lighting Yourself Properly Takes Practice
“When you’re communicating on camera, eye contact is critical. In this regard and others, lighting is transformative,” said Klein. “Halo lights create a sparkle in the eyes that give you an instant lift.”
Klein uses a Neewer 18-inch ring light that has four white and four orange interchangeable filters that she adjusts to create the effect she’s after. “With fall here, and my complexion, I use all four of the orange-colored filters on my ring light. I find it adds a nice glow.”
If you’re darker complected, start with a pure white filter, but check that it doesn’t look too harsh given your surroundings. Klein suggests playing with the settings to find the filters you like best. (If you want to get fancy, you can also play with background color and put canned lights on the floor to create a mood—blue creates a calming effect, for example, but it’s not necessary for most business calls.)
Whatever you do, Klein says to avoid putting a light source behind you (another reason sitting in front of a window is a bad idea). Backlighting will make you appear as if you have no eyes, which are “extremely important in communication,” she said. You should also turn off any harsh overhead lights, which will make you look hollowed out, like a skull.
The Wrong Angle Can Cost You
Camera angles are critical to getting your viewpoint across and have a massive psychological impact on you as the presenter, and on your audience, Klein told me. Not surprisingly, they are a critical focus of her company’s training—one she explores in detail with her clients. “The engineers who designed our built-in laptop and cell phone cameras were well-intentioned, I’m sure, but the lenses are in a terrible position to help us come across confidently as experts: they can make us look arrogant, like we’re talking down to our audience, or insecure, or even inauthentic,” she said. That’s important to avoid with anyone, but especially when you’re talking with a job candidate or potential investor, or trying to motivate your team.
“It’s amazing to hear focus groups talk about perceptions that can be easily shifted with a few adjustments. We hear ‘this person feels like they’re putting up a wall’ simply because they’re wearing glasses or have facial hair, but anything that blocks your audience from seeing your eyes, like the glare of the lenses on your glasses, will do that,” Klein said. “Ineffective or poor lighting, when it prevents your audience from seeing your facial expressions, can have the same effect.”
Klein also taught me the importance of looking at the camera when presenting so that you can make direct eye contact with your audience. To help, she recommended that I cover my picture. “Coming across confidently as an expert requires eye contact with the camera, not the little screen where you see yourself,” she said. “Your audience is the camera.” Her tip: Put a sticky note with a smiley face right underneath your camera and look at that instead of your own image.
Body Language Counts
Every gesture you make in a video call is magnified in the little screen your audience sees, Klein told me. That’s why it’s so important to keep from fidgeting or checking your cell phone. It will distract your audience or, worse, make you look like you don’t care about the conversation. “Learn to recognize your ‘tells,’” said Klein. Nervous habits like cracking your knuckles or crossing your arms can make you appear less than confident. (My “tell” is a vibrato that appears when I’m nervous. I think I sound like a goat, which ratchets up my anxiety and makes me “maaaaa” even more; Klein’s is a gradual creeping up of the shoulders.) She has easy fixes for both.
Body language can also ensure that your audience will see you in a positive light. “Lean forward when you’re making an important point—like when you’re trying to close a deal—to demonstrate authenticity and expertise,” Klein said.
If You’re on Camera for Work, Hiring a Pro Is Worth the Investment
When you consider that poor communication can be devastating to your business, hiring a pro makes sense. Aside from coaching me about kinesics, Klein gave me recommendations for wardrobe (no busy patterns like herringbone, which causes a crazy rainbow halo on camera), color (wearing red doesn’t project the vibe I was led to believe it does) and makeup. (She offers tips for both men and women, and suggests recording different looks on your phone and seeing how they come across before testing them live.)
I’m still tweaking things here and there, but the lessons I learned from Klein have made a huge difference in my on-camera communication. I’m no longer distracted by my own image, and I’m making more direct eye contact with my audience by looking into the tripod camera instead of looking down at them from my laptop camera like some kind of haughty, double-chinned jerk. I’ll keep you posted on how the podcast goes.
To book a free 30-minute consultation with Klein or learn more about her training, visit truthfairyinc.com.
Amy Hourigan is a freelance writer based in Cheshire, Connecticut.