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How’s your digital body language.
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I received a review copy of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan a few months ago. I knew it was an important book and wanted to take the time to digest the whole thing. And, now that I have, all I can say is Hallelujah and thank you to author Erica Dhawan for finally saying the great unsaid.
What is Digital Body Language
Too much? I don’t think so. Dhawan is not just on to something, she’s actually put a name to it and it’s called Digital Body Language. According to Dhawan, all your traditional leadership skills, emotional intelligence, and Dale Carnegie training are useless if you can’t translate your in-person communication into equally engaging digital communication.
Efficiency Over Emotion Doesn’t Work
Dhawan shares example after example of smart, capable, leaders and managers who had mastered the art of real-life communication, but fell flat in their digital communication.
Our ability to care is compromised: When we’re face-to-face, it’s easy to give and receive appreciation; with a handshake for a job well done or a warm smile.
So, dear friends, your job is to replace all these traditional real life forms of body language feedback with digital replacements. And in Digital Body Language, Dhawan gives you everything you need to sound like a flesh and blood human in a pixelated world.
Heck Yeah! There are Cheat Sheets
Have you seen this meme going around on your Facebook or Twitter?
What Makes Erica Dhawan an Expert in Digital Body Language?
And, she’s written this helpful guide and manual so the rest of us can show up as we really are both online and offline.
Use Digital Body Language as Your Handbook
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Digital Body Language: How to Build a Modern Workplace Culture that Thrives
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace culture changed dramatically. Video calls, instant messaging and email took center stage as many of us were forced to work from home. Abruptly, we had to consider when to turn our cameras on and off, how our tone might come across in emails to people that we normally saw face to face, and whether emojis might help us stay connected or seem unprofessional.
Two years on, we know remote work is here to stay for many of us, and that means effective digital body language is critical for a workplace culture to thrive. Company leaders and managers must intentionally facilitate successful remote communications by setting an example, talking openly about needs and expectations, and then adapting as change continues, because we know it will.
What is Digital Body Language?
We define digital body language broadly as all the signals that are exchanged digitally, whether that means in an online meeting, with or without video, or written communications delivered by text, email or instant message.
When you communicate with someone in person, there are certain cues you give that send unspoken messages about your intent or personality. In person, we use body language, facial expressions and tone of voice to express meaning beyond our words. But what happens when we take those away and must rely only on the text on a screen to read someone's intentions? Does an exclamation point mean you are yelling?! Or just excited!? Does it make you sound more friendly? Or too eager?
And how do we navigate online meetings? When should the camera be on? How can we stay connected through pixels? While digital body language is a new term for many of us, it describes behavior we’ve all been engaged in at work, whether we have realized it or not.
There are many questions we face when attempting to communicate digitally. A common understanding of digital body language can help us answer them with increased confidence.
Why Digital Body Language Matters
Workplace culture is a delicate and complex machine that changes constantly. To ignore digital body language is to leave culture and morale to chance. Any workplace is a mix of people with different backgrounds and personalities. Without clear communications, which must include thoughtful digital body language, miscommunication and misunderstandings will inevitably happen. That can ultimately hurt productivity and a company’s bottom line.
Policies and practices that promote clear and positive digital body language, on the other hand, will support virtual work environments that are inclusive and connected. That means better morale, improved productivity and a healthy workplace culture.
Communicate About How to Communicate
It’s important to have a discussion to set the stage for different mediums. For example, using a chat (instant messaging) function is the virtual equivalent of popping by a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question. But for discussions that are more nuanced, staff should be encouraged to pick up a phone or, if visuals are needed, schedule a video call so they can share their screen.
Are your text messages and emails long and detailed or short and concise? Be aware that brevity can send mixed messages. When face to face, a simple “yes” can be expedient, but in the digital world a brief “yes” or “no” followed by a period might be interpreted as “don’t ask me again,” or “you should know this.” Managers are inundated by constant messages and notifications, and brevity is often the most efficient style of communication. For this reason, it’s critical that managers offer clarity regarding:
- Why digital body language matters
- How they prefer to communicate in various scenarios
- Any standards they want to set
Managers are responsible for keeping people connected. It’s crucial to make sure that informal culture-building conversations still have a space. We don’t have traditional coffee breaks and the office water cooler is no longer seeing much activity, but it’s important that people feel connected because that’s the best way to encourage collaboration. To achieve this, consider creating virtual coffee break get-togethers or setting up regular one-on-one meetings with your team members.
Like anything else, managers must be prepared to evolve, to check in with staff and see what’s working, what isn’t and be ready to adapt.
Set Standards for Video Meetings
Given that virtual meetings are such an enormous part of how we work now, it’s important to think about any norms you want to set around these interactions. Is it important that certain meetings run with cameras on? Is there some flexibility for those who prefer cameras off? There are compelling arguments for both. Cameras “on” helps us connect and see real body language, but cameras “off” can be a relief for many who are juggling back-to-back meetings and the fatigue that comes with staring at a screen for hours on end.
One way to address this is to set the intention between always “on” and always “off,” but whatever is established, be sure to clearly communicate what’s expected to avoid the sort of misunderstandings that can hamper productivity. For example, when creating new meetings, clearly state in the invite title whether it is “video optional” or “video encouraged.” You can also designate “no camera” days of the week—maybe it’s every Friday, every Monday or both.
It’s also a good idea to establish a dress code for online meetings. Even for casual environments where hoodies are the norm, it’s best to convey exactly what’s expected to avoid anxiety among staff or create unexpected situations for clients. If casual wear is acceptable attire but appropriate for internal meetings only, make sure to say that explicitly.
Communicate & Iterate
It’s a whole new world of work. We’re all still finding our way from crisis management to new normal, and it can be confusing at times. Digital body language is baked into workplace culture, so clearly communicating about what’s expected is a must. Company leaders should be intentional and proactive about guiding their organizations through the ongoing changes. Clear communication is key, but so is agility; as norms continue to change, effective leaders must be ready to adapt.
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What is digital body language?
I’m interested in how people communicate and connect when they aren’t face to face or even communicating in real time, perhaps through an asynchronous forum or community such as Slack or Yammer.
Lori Niles-Hoffman , who is a Data Driven Learning Strategist , has experienced “the seismic shift from classroom to digital” in her career and this is what many professionals are dealing with – either embracing or struggling.
This is a pretty epic blog post exploring the topic in a fair amount of detail, with lots of links for you to read more.
What’s the short version?
The short version of this blog post is:
- Digital body language is all of the electronic stuff we do (or don’t do) online that you can analyse to understand people and what they want to do
- It comes from marketing, but we can, and should, apply it to L&D
- Face to face communication and training is changing, so we need to understand how to communicate with people differently
- Digital body language applies to groups, forums, enterprise social networks, social media, internal and external electronic behaviour, communities, webinars and virtual classrooms.
This is a February 2020 interview from Learning Now TV , about digital body language to give you a quick overview:
Here’s the long version…
What is DBL anyway?
According to Lori , it was Steve Woods who developed the term “Digital Body Language” in 2009.
Steve explains it this way on his blog :
Digital Body Language is the aggregate of all the digital activity you see from an individual. Each email that is opened or clicked, each web visit, each form, each search on Google, each referral from a social media property, and each webinar attended are part of the prospect’s digital body language. In the same way that body language, as read by a sales person managing a deal, is an amalgamation of facial expressions, body posture, eye motions, and many other small details, digital body language is the amalgamation of all digital touchpoints.
This is a great introduction from the Clicktale e-book about customer’s body language :
Clicktale goes on in the document to say:
The same level [as face to face] of interaction and interpretation is achievable in the digital world. Every mouse move, hover, scroll, tap and pinch exposes structured behavioral patterns that determine customers’ digital body language and mindset. Digital body language is a customer’s subconscious online behavior. Being able to interpret this digital body language is a must-have standard for the next wave of digital commerce.
Jamie Good , in his LinkedIn article, defined digital body language as:
The aggregate of an individual’s passive and active online activity
This focuses on the data generated when using computers and associated devices. It’s looking at what you click, or don’t click and a huge amount of other online measurements too. It can bring up issues of privacy and who owns the data, which Jamie’s article starts to discuss.
This is all very well about data from platforms and websites, but we need to think about how this can apply in learning and development.
From face to face to digital comms
There’s a lot of change in corporate communications, sales, marketing and of course the way that not only do people learn, but also how we as L&D professionals communicate with our learners.
In her eBook, Lori Niles-Hoffman highlights that:
Sales and marketing departments experienced a similar challenge [to L&D departments] when customer relationships moved from face-to-face, nurtured relationships to online transactions. …Connections are now developed via multiple and rapid online interactions.
Building on this point, Clicktale share some HBR insight:
We are increasingly seeing this change with learning offerings: not only through an LMS (learning management system); but also online communities/groups/forums as well as digital content offerings and virtual classrooms.
In her book Lori gives the example of what digital body language analysis can enable:
DBL analysis can show which content format is most appealing and at what time of day or week the customer prefers to engage.
From a marketing point of view Lori continues to explain that:
Once the DBL of a customer is decoded, then marketing can design content and campaigns that respond to these preferences.This increases the probability of positive and ongoing engagement with the brand and company.
And we can adapt this for learning and development when we are putting together learning campaigns and digital content for people at work. To this point, Lori shares that:
This type of thinking has not yet arrived in the learning industry. Every drop-off, click, or share is a learner shouting their likes and dislikes. These actions are the eye-rolls, smiles, and arms crossed from the classroom, simply in digital format. But we are not listening.
Read more about why Lori wrote her Data-Drive Learning Design eBook here .
Problems with digital body language for learning and development
Refocusing on the L&D professional, Lori highlights that that change with technology-enabled communications and learning transactions means that:
The in-person relationship is fading. Companies are shifting to digital modalities to avoid the associated travel and accommodation costs of face-to-face delivery. This loss for learning professionals means the inability to real-time assess the engagement of learners.
Lori confirms what many face to face trainers, facilitators, teachers and presenters are afraid of:
The opportunity to read and adapt to the body language of participants in a classroom has vanished.
With regards specifically the virtual classroom, I wrote this article for Training Journal about facilitating A Group You Cannot See and what technology features are available for interacting with and engaging your attendees.
When thinking about the data to analyse, there are challenges in how to capture it. The Granify E-Commerce Blog , in an article by Lacie Larschan , highlight that:
The usefulness of digital body language depends heavily on the granularity of data captured…and even more challenging to interpret this data.
They highlight that there are ways to overcome the challenges:
This is why recent advances in machine learning have propelled the use of digital body language in marketing and sales campaigns. A system powered by machine learning can detect patterns that might be hidden from even the best of human analysts.
This is another reason that, whilst you as an L&D professional might not specialise in this area, an awareness of computer and data trends are important as they will impact on how we work in the future.
Opportunities for digital body language
In their research paper Data-driven Learning: A Student-centered Technique for Language Learning , Touraj Talai and Zahra Fotovatnia reference Tim Johns about Data-Driven Learning:
Johns (1988) expressed that DDL entails a shift in the role of teachers and students. In other words the teacher works as a research director and collaborator instead of transmitting information to the students directly and explicitly.
If you want more depth, you can read a bit more from Tim himself in his paper Should You Be Persuaded – Two Samples of Data-Driven Learning Materials .
This is moving into an area of potentially using technology to provide curated materials to attendees, as well as analysing their online behaviour. We are moving into looking at not only the learning intervention and the ‘session’ as it is live, but also the broad and varies social interactions that surround this.
Perhaps digital body language is a strict marketing term and in L&D we should focus on different terminology to describe further what we do. Is it “electronic body language” or “virtual body language”. Is it actually about “online communications” or “online behaviour analysis”.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter and the semantics aren’t the issue here – it’s more about understanding what we CAN include rather than exclude, and what we actually do.
What can digital body language help us do?
Community Roundtable co-founder Rachel Happe wrote on her blog about digital body language :
After years of watching people interact online it is clear to me that you can infer quite a bit about people’s unwritten intent.
Rachel goes on to give some examples, such as these based on Twitter:
How and when someone inserts themselves into a public conversation What and who a person RTs [Re-Tweets] or shares How reactive and emotional individuals are (are they quick to judge or slower to respond to good/bad news?)
This is then focusing on the behaviour of an individual, and we need to include ourselves in this – as our professional profile, business owners, learners ourselves and of course in understanding the people we are interacting with in ways other than face to face.
On the Business 2 Community website, PureMatter CEO Bryan Kramer wrote an article about mastering your digital body language and stated that:
A company’s digital body language is an assessment of the collective behavior across the Internet, including marketing initiatives and user interactions in the earned, owned and paid sectors online. As opportunities to interact socially are growing infinitesimally, paying attention to your personal digital body language – as a representative of both your personal brand and your company brand – is becoming critical. ….When you’re able to build a digital body language that reflects your authentic personal and corporate brand, true magic happens.
Bryan goes on to share ways to shape your own digital body language, which go towards the perception of your company or professional brand. His first point is “create and share heartfelt content” in order to “be authentic in everything that you represent” and avoid seeming manufactured.
Following this line of thought, Lisa Attygalle , Director of Engagement at Tamarack , wrote that :
There is a need for community engagement to become more focused on relationship-building rather than being transactional. …Developing an understanding of digital body language may be helpful. I thought about some digital body language cues that may be visible in typical online engagement initiatives and suggested what they may infer.
Lisa goes on to give examples such as “on Facebook, responded as ‘Interested’ (not attending) to an in-person consultation event” the inference might be that they are “interested in contributing but the timing or location of the consultation may not suit.” Lisa also makes suggestions of your responses, such as inviting people to share their story on your blog if they have already commented in social media.
Lisa’s blog post is a really valuable list of behaviours, understandings and suggested responses to help with your thinking about your community, be it in a specific platform such as our own Lightbulb Moment free virtual classroom and webinar group , or your followers on social media.
With the different ways that we communicate in business, in our working lives and as learning professionals ourselves, we all need to know a little bit about digital body language. We need to understand the personal brand we have and as part of the organisation we work for.
In our organisations we need to start thinking about what data there is already that we can analyse, what can we perhaps start to collect and what we can do with that – especially with the learning management system being an ever-changing beast and there being so much rich data outside of it’s digital walls.
When thinking about our communities of practice the digital body language analysis we can make from an admin point of view of the data, as well as what community managers and contributors can understand and interpret as invested users or individual participants are going to be part of our daily lives, if they aren’t already.
And when we come to deliver learning solutions that include social learning through discussions groups/forums, maybe MOOCs and of course virtual classrooms and webinars, we need to be able to understand what the online behaviour is of people.
In the modern working and learning world, we can’t see everybody face to face. So it’s time to face up to digital body language.
An interesting little video from Brian Fanzo on a digital body language:
Want to be more authoritative and engaged when presenting online either for your next @zoom call or #virtualevent or webinar? Focus on shifting perspective and understanding the emotion your body & visuals are evoking! #Presentationtips #WorkFromHome #videoconferencing pic.twitter.com/Garmr2tbLp — Fanzo (@iSocialFanz) April 7, 2020
- Digital/Virtual Body Language
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This is a fascinating topic and one that thew Snapchat generation would find amusing. As digital natives, they naturally build relationships digitally. 3 things can we learn from them. 1. Frequency – relationships can’t be built via a monthly newsletter. What can you do on a daily basis ? 2. Be Brief – if you are sharing something – make it snappy. Consumable in under 60 seconds. 3. Be Visual – Video, photos, it’s all about the selfie
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I’m always intrigued as a trainer by how a learner’s digital body language can be read during a live online learning session. What are the cues to pick up on that learners are engaged or need further clarity?
Regular use of the green tick function is certainly a good tip on platforms like Adobe Connect, but I’d be intrigued to see if anyone has done anything similar to Lisa Attygalle’s table ( http://www.tamarackcommunity.ca/latest/digital-body-language ) in the context of live online learning.
Great post Jo 🙂
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What is Digital Body Language?
The amazing thing about technology is that it allows us to access all kinds of information that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. Software like email and document trackers, CRMs and sales intelligence tools have completely changed the way sales works. Reps can know everything there is to know about a prospect's habits and interests before ever speaking to them.
Information about prospects’ online behavior, like the pages they’ve looked at and the emails they’ve opened, is called digital body language. As a sales rep, how you use that information can be the difference between closing a deal or not.
What is Digital Body Language?
Digital body language is all of the online activity or behavior that you see from someone as they navigate your site, content or resources.
For sales reps, digital body language serves as cues as to what challenges a prospect is looking to solve and what solutions they’re considering.
“A sales rep can learn so much about the prospect by reading into their digital body language, regardless of which stage they are at in their buyer’s journey,” says Lead Growth Advisor Karly Wescott . “That information isn’t just useful during the first discovery call. Digital body language will carry on through the entire buying cycle and can indicate where [a prospect] is in the buyer's journey as well as what their persona and area of interest are.”
Here are some of the different activities that you may assess when learning about a prospect’s digital body language:
- Form submissions
- Page views
- The channel that brought someone to your website
- Email opens/interactions
- Topics of interest
- Funnel stage of content (ToFu, MoFu, BoFu)
- Active times of day
How Do You Use Digital Body Language
Throughout the entirety of a sales process , reps can use digital body language to gauge a prospects true level of interest. That, in turn, can help guide the reps outreach and engagement levels.
Digital body language is a great tool for shaping outreach and deciding how much time to dedicate to trying to bring in a lead and get them to book a meeting.
“With HubSpot’s email tracking tool, I can see when one of my prospects has opened an email multiple times,” says Karly. “You will have people who open every single email and don’t respond, and you will have people who don’t open any of your emails ever.”
Knowing how much a prospect is engaging with your emails will let your reps prioritize the leads who are engaged over the leads that aren’t. It can also help you decide when to send an email or make a phone call.
“If you notice that someone is always opening your emails or reading your content at 7:00 PM at night, then you may want to make that call or send your own email around that time because clearly that’s when they are evaluating your brand,” says Karly.
Before the first conversation
When a prospect converts on your site, all of their information and digital body language will become available in your CRM .
When a sales rep is notified that there is a new lead, their first reaction should be to evaluate that lead’s digital body language to inform everything about their next steps.
Digital body language is also great for measuring how much a prospect knows about your company or brand.
If someone has consumed a ton of your content and been all over your site, you know they may be ready for more serious content and conversations. On the contrary, if someone has only read one page and then submitted a meeting request, you can treat them differently in terms of how you approach the call and the material you bring with you.
“If a prospect has 40 page views and is looking at almost entirely content on website strategy and conversion optimization, I can probably assume they are going to want to discuss a website redesign on our call, and I can prep for that,” says Karly.
You can also see how many people from a company are viewing your content and downloads, which can indicate the level of engagement and seriousness.
During the sales cycle
Even after that first discovery call, digital body language will help you interact with the prospect and shape your outreach according to their actions.
After a sales call or presentation ends and you send over a document, you can track the amount of times that document is opened and which part of the document is looked at the most.
“When I get the alert that the prospect I just got off the phone with is reviewing the documents I sent over, it lets me know they are serious about this process,” says Karly. “Even more than that, when I see them jump onto the site after that call and start reviewing case studies on their own, I know they are moving into that decision stage.”
Documents tools, like the one in HubSpot’s Sales Hub , are also valuable for the contract or proposal stage because your reps will be able to see which pages of the document have been viewed the most or for the longest amount of time.
“If I see that a prospect is opening the document and going straight to the pricing page over and over, I can assume that they are very price focused or concerned,” says Karly.
You can also use digital body language to inform how you approach a call or meeting with a prospect.
If your reps have sent over a bunch of documents prior to a call and an hour before the call you notice that the prospect is reading them and browsing the site, you can assume they are prepping and judge their level of seriousness about the call in general.
Another great indicator is when you see other individuals at a company jump on to view the documents you have sent over.
“Let’s say you have been working with a company and you are in contact with two stakeholders throughout the buyer's journey,” says Karly. “All of the sudden, you see their boss jump in or their CEO go straight to your website and start browsing case studies — that’s a great indicator that things are moving along.”
Regardless of which stage of the buyer’s journey your prospects are in, digital body language is crucial for offering a personalized and successful sales process.
If they don’t leverage digital body language, your reps won’t be offering as personalized of an experience to prospects as they could be, and, as a result, they will close less deals overall.
“You can ask as many questions as you want to prospects on a call about where they are in their sales process, but their digital body language will tell you so much more and give you such a clearer picture as to what’s really going on,” says Karly.
Weslee Clyde is an inbound marketing strategist at New Breed. She is focused on generating results using inbound methods and is driven by the customer experience. When not at the office, you can find her binging a docu-series on true crime or perfecting her gluten-free baking skills.
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Erica Dhawan: Using digital body language to build trust on your remote team
By Drew Pearce
Published on December 14, 2021
Animation by Fanny Luor
How emojis, memes, and terse DMs play out at work—in intentional and unintentional ways.
If you’ve ever seen a punctuation mark turn a text chat into a tense standoff, you already know the impact of digital body language.
When you can’t talk face to face, you miss out on the frowns, smiles, and raised eyebrows that can offer important context behind words—stress, joy, even irony. Emojis and memes can lighten the tone, but they can’t convey the subtle emotional cues you sense in someone’s presence.
So how do you humanize virtual communication without adding misunderstandings?
Video calls and chat apps have helped, but as pandemic isolation wears on, their limitations have been laid bare. Now we know how hard it can be to brainstorm and establish rapport virtually, especially as more people start new jobs without getting to meet their teammates in person.
On the upside, distributed work has opened new doors of opportunity for those who live far from big cities and tech hubs. And new tools like Dropbox Capture combine the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous by letting you send personalized video messages instead of text.
On the downside, distance isn’t the only barrier. Generational and personality differences can widen communication gaps. When you add the anxiety of a global pandemic to the mix, it can feel like learning a new language in a culture that never existed before.
Fortunately, Erica Dhawan—author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance —has been studying ways to overcome cultural divides and language barriers for years. In fact, it’s been her passion since she was a child. Growing up in a family of Indian immigrants in Pittsburgh, she became fascinated with how people from different backgrounds create authentic connections.
“It’s up to managers to create a cohesive team that creates spaces for different communication styles.”
In the years since, it’s become her life’s work—first as a research fellow at Harvard and MIT, and later as a world-renowned expert on teamwork in the 21st century. In her latest book , she provides a practical guide to communicating effectively in the era of digital work.
“Every few months, things seem to get faster, leaving us no choice but to adapt to the newest normal,” says Dhawan. “We grow more accepting of distractions and interruptions, become more indifferent to the needs and emotions of colleagues and workmates.”
This digital disconnect leads to misinterpretation and new waves of organizational dysfunction—and one of the most overlooked reasons is the loss of nonverbal body cues. With more physical distance, fewer face-to-face interactions, and virtually no body language, it’s harder than ever to read emotions. It’s not that people don't want to be empathetic—they just don't know how to be with today's tools.
But with the proper use of digital body language—which includes not only your words, punctuation, emojis, and avatars, but also the channels you choose—you can learn to build trust with your teammates even when you’re working remotely.
Which principle of digital body language is the biggest challenge for remote teams?
The first principle of digital body language is one of the most critical: Never confuse a brief message with a clear message. Receiving an email from your boss that simply reads “We should talk,” could have multiple interpretations. One-word responses like “Fine,” “Sure,” or “O.K.” can also cause uncertainty.
Sending multiple question marks (???) instead of asking your team an actual question doesn’t clarify the information to either party. The recipient could jump to negative conclusions. But in fact, a boss may just want to discuss a proposal they turned in last week.
“Never confuse a brief message with a clear message.”
If you’re a manager, here are three questions to ask yourself to create a culture of clarity instead of brevity with your teammates:
- Am I clear enough about what I need? Always take a moment to provide the necessary background required for the recipient.
- Did I include the right people in the email? Is it clear why this message is meaningful to this person or group of people? It’s easy to be so brief that others don’t understand why they need to respond.
- Am I intentional about when and what I expect in response? Make sure you are giving your team an appropriate and precise time when you expect an email back.
One of my favorite ways to avoid brevity creating confusion is to create clear acronyms for your team. For example, NNTR on emails means “No Need to Respond,” 4H in subject lines means I need this in 4 hours, and 2D means I need it in 2 days. Even if it takes you a few extra minutes, spend the time communicating with the intention of being ultra-clear.
Brevity can also cause anxiety when there may not even be a need to worry. While a brief email may be convenient for you, it can have a negative effect on the person receiving it. And it can cause your team to waste time interpreting your messages instead of focusing on the task at hand. When there is clarity in communication, this also improves productivity and accountability because there is less room for misinterpretation.
You’ve noted that most people fall into two categories: Digital Natives, the Gen Zers who grew up fluent in non-verbal virtual communication—and Digital Adapters, the Gen Xers and Boomers who are learning emojis, memes, and texting etiquette like a new language. What tips do you have for bridging the communication gap between those two groups?
Good leadership is about more than bending people to your standards or norms. It also involves a willingness to engage across the different digital body language styles present in your workplace. It’s actually no different from knowing three or four different languages or regional dialects.
When establishing policies to bridge the communication gap, ensure you gather feedback from digital natives and adapters. Then, focus on norms that best serve the task at hand. Set norms for the appropriate time to use each channel of communication, message length, complexity, and response time. Questions that should be answered include:
- “How long is too long for an IM message?”
- “Do we want to put a limit on the number of people to include in a group video call?”
- “What should meeting agendas look like?”
- “When (if ever) is it appropriate to text someone?”
- “What is the expected response time for emails?”
It’s also essential to have team champions who hold people accountable when practicing these norms and even have a polite correction method if they are not being met.
Last, despite all policies, get comfortable with being uncomfortable when it matters. For example, Brad, the SVP at a large gaming company and a digital adapter, has observed a stark difference in the two Slack channels run by his leaders, Allie and Dave. Dave, a digital native, has a Slack channel filled with emojis, GIFs, and memes, whereas Allie, who is a mid-forties digital adapter, has a more formal writing style, complete with bullet points.
“With Allie’s Slack channel,” Brad says, “I’m at home.” Nonetheless, he soon came around to the way Dave saw the world. “He is so authentic. If I were to force him to be ‘corporate,’ his team would be less excited and engaged.” He adds, “I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do is try to become conversant in this ‘dialect,’ even if it’s uncomfortable.”
“Gather feedback from digital natives and adapters. Then, focus on norms that best serve the task at hand.”
Building communication guidelines is a smart decision. However, pausing for a second before you decide to adjust how someone on your team is communicating and taking a moment to consider how that person’s style might end up benefiting your team is also just as important.
Virtual onboarding has proven to be one of the best opportunities for establishing norms and expectations around digital body language. What tips do you have for managers and coworkers who want to create camaraderie with new team members?
My first tip is to migrate from phony to authentic communication. If someone is new to your team, type them a welcome message on their first day. Let them genuinely know how happy you are that they are here and how excited you are to work with them.
My second tip is to engage in digital watercooler moments. Research shows that when we transition to remote work, what we miss most are the social, relationship-building activities that take place spontaneously, like when we walk by someone’s desk and say hello, converge in the breakroom to discuss our latest Netflix binge, or ask a distracted colleague if he’s okay. These “watercooler interactions” are essential ingredients for building camaraderie, morale, and trust. They also keep us in the loop around what’s really going on in an organization.
So, without an actual watercooler, what are you supposed to do? The answer: create the time just to hang out and check-in together. It doesn’t have to be a strictly planned social gathering; five to ten minutes at the beginning of a team meeting will do. Your team should feel comfortable acknowledging the obvious fact that they have lives outside work.
One team member of an entirely remote team once told me, “Every morning we start with Zoom all-hands meetings—what did you do yesterday/what about today/do you have any blockers? We also do another at the end of the day—what worked? What didn’t? What did we try? It’s a great way to celebrate our successes, share challenges, and create boundaries.”
My third tip is to record your previous team Zoom calls so new team members can watch recordings before joining their first meeting. This is a priceless way to speed up knowledge sharing, as well as help new team members learn the varying communication styles and norms of your virtual and hybrid meetings.
Do you have any specific tips for new employees trying to connect with their coworkers?
If you’re the new person on the team, do some due diligence. Take some time to see your teammates’ work. Then, when it’s time to reach out, you can lead with specific details to let them know you’re familiar with their role and how they contribute to the team while recognizing their efforts and hard work from the first interaction. Then, go forward from there. With every scrap of detail, you begin to develop trust.
First, understand what drives your boss's pet peeves. Managing up is about knowing what completely irritates your boss. Does she cringe at grammar mistakes? Does it irrationally annoy him when people send overly long emails? A lack of agendas for video calls?
Second, ask your manager and teammates about their preferred digital communication style, based on the complexity and urgency of information. For example, does your boss prefer to receive long emails covering many topics or individual emails for individual topics? Does your team prefer to be kept in the loop on everything you're working on (e.g., with daily or weekly update emails), or are they more hands-off? What topics are best to discuss on a video call versus in an email? When is it acceptable to make a quick phone call to a colleague?
Third, reimagine what it means to "arrive early" and "stay late" at work. You won't earn bonus points for showing up early to the morning huddle on Zoom in a digital workplace. You'll just be in the waiting room instead of chatting with colleagues as you would in the office.
Instead, send an email (or Slack message) to your team outlining your plan of action for the day and ask if there's anything you can do to help senior team members by taking work off their plate. If there are client calls you can't attend, ask if they can be recorded so you can learn and take notes afterward. Towards the end of your workday, reply to that same message with an update on your projects. Make a point to ask if there's anything else you can help with before the morning.
Communication, specifically via digital mediums, is no longer a 'soft skill'—it is the new power skill that will define your success as a new hire.
Do certain personality types have an easier or harder time adapting to digital body language?
With less social interaction and more opportunities for autonomy, the chances are that introverts have enjoyed working remotely and asynchronously over the past year-plus. On the other hand, extroverts may have found themselves to be less productive and more irritable at home, struggling to recreate external stimuli they are used to having in the office to motivate them.
I don’t believe that one personality type—introverts, extroverts, or even ambiverts—uses digital body language better than another. However, I do believe that each personality prefers different digital mediums to express their digital body language.For example, many introverts have shared with me that they thrive using the chat tool in a video call, where they can avoid turn-taking and think in writing first before speaking. They also benefit from a thoughtful agenda before meetings to prepare their thoughts in advance.
Extroverts need airtime and may express themselves more effectively in a quick video meeting. Extroverts also benefit from spontaneous moments of social connection during the day through hybrid team bonding events such as Zoom lunches and happy hours.
“Communication, specifically via digital mediums, is no longer a ‘soft skill’— it is the new power skill that will define your success as a new hire.”
It’s up to managers to create a cohesive team that creates spaces for different communication styles so that everyone can communicate in their authentic voice in the digital workplace. Regardless of where team members fall on the extroversion-introversion spectrum, the overnight switch to virtual work over a year ago forced all of us to adjust to uncomfortable circumstances. I hope that the tips above will make us stronger and more inclusive of all personalities in the workplace.
Which digital communication tools do you rely on every day?
I rely on video calls, Slack, email, and sometimes text messaging. I consciously choose the appropriate communication medium based on whom I’m connecting with and what I’m connecting about. For example, my college interns communicate best on Slack and enjoy emailed Amazon gift cards at the end of their tenures, while my executive team sticks to emails and appreciates personalized notes.
Video calls are beneficial for kicking off and calibrating projects and establishing what success looks like for initiatives, teams, and individuals. Instant messaging platforms and email are beneficial for day-to-day communications. I use text messaging with a receiver’s permission if anything urgent comes up.What’s missing from current remote collaboration tools that could enhance clarity in our digital body language?
I’d argue we need better playbooks for the ideal behaviors we should model when using remote collaboration tools. With many different platforms available, it’s easy to schedule meetings that should be emails, Slacks that should be phone calls, and confuse the period at the end of a text as passive aggressive.
What’s the most surprising lesson you’ve learned about digital communication during the pandemic?
Initially, I insisted on framing digital body language as a mere complement to traditional, everyday body language. I was wrong. Physical body language and digital body language are inseparable. Digital body language is reshaping physical body language, verbal communication, and even the way we think.
Online and off, at our jobs or home, our phones have altered how we make eye contact. We sometimes find ourselves thinking in terms of hashtags or bullet points. We can miss the lean-in in a sales conversation in a hybrid meeting. Our level of impatience has gone up. We expect others to get to the point fast. And nowhere is this transformation more apparent than in the workplace.
It has taught me that more than ever, what was implicit in our traditional body language must be explicit in digital body language. Like immigrants in a foreign country, we are all immigrants to the digital workplace and must become fluent in digital body language together.
To learn more, visit EricaDhawan.com and follow her on Linkedin , Instagram , Facebook , and Twitter .
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Virtual First Toolkit: How to communicate effectively
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Summary: Digital Body Language By Erica Dhawan
What Is Digital Body Language?
Today, roughly 70 percent of all communication among teams is virtual. We send around 306 billion emails every day, with the average person sending 30 emails daily. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 percent of the time the “tone” of our emails is misinterpreted. Fifty percent! Imagine saying “I love you” to your partner, but half the time their response is “Yeah, right.”
Today, “emotional intelligence” and “empathy” have become buzzwords. They are discussed at roundtables. They are part of every mainstream education curriculum. Leaders have sold us on the idea that seeing situations clearly from others’ perspectives can transform leadership styles, work cultures, and business strategies.
Why Then A Crisis Of Misunderstanding At Work?
Digital Body Language is for people whose bosses and colleagues drone on and on about teamwork but never seem to do what’s necessary to facilitate it. It’s for anyone swamped with in-person meetings, conference calls, emails, texts, and social media platforms, those who have thrown up their hands and decided to just set it and forget it.
- Traditional Body Language: keep your palms open; uncross your arms and legs; smile and nod.
- Digital Body Language: use language that is direct with clear subject lines; end emails with a friendly gesture (Text me if you need anything! Hope this helps.); never bcc anyone without warning; mirror the sender’s use of emojis and/or informal punctuation.
- Traditional Body Language: lean in with your body as another person is talking; uncross your arms and legs; smile; nod; make direct eye contact.
- Digital Body Language: prioritize timely responses; send responses that answer all questions or statements in the previous message (not just one or two); send a simple Got it! or Received if the message doesn’t merit a longer response; don’t use the mute button as a license to multitask; use positive emojis like thumbs-up or smiley faces.
- Traditional Body Language: speak quickly; raise your voice; express yourself physically by jumping up and down or tapping your fingers on your desk.
- Digital Body Language: use exclamation points and capitalization; prioritize quick response times; send multiple messages in a row without getting a response first; use positive emojis (smiley faces, thumbs-up, high fives).
- Traditional Body Language: raise your voice; speak quickly; point your finger (or make any other exaggerated gesture).
- Digital Body Language: use all caps paired with direct language or sentences that end in multiple exclamation marks; opt for a phone call or a meeting over a digital message; skip greetings; use formal closings, Reply All, or Cc to direct attention; issue the same message on multiple digital channels simultaneously.
Pillar #1 Value Visibly
Reading carefully is the new listening.
The problem, according to research done by linguist Naomi Baron, is that we comprehend less when reading on a screen than we do when reading print. We devote less time to reading an onscreen passage, are more inclined to multitask, and tend to skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully
One big reason we read so poorly online is that typically we’re moving at lightning speed. Instead of taking the time to go carefully through messages, we race through them toward an indeterminate finish line (one that resets every morning). Our need for speed leads to exchanges like the one above—the digital equivalent of talking over each other.
A lot of our speed, and our anxiety around speed, is artificial, which ends up costing us accuracy, clarity, and respect. But even if you really are too busy to get back to people immediately, there are ways to show you aren’t blowing them off. You can show respect, for example, by sending a quick note (e.g., Got it!) to let them know you got their text or email and are on it. You could give a ballpark estimate as to when you’ll be able to respond at greater length.
WRITING CLEARLY IS THE NEW EMPATHY
The CMO of a pharmaceutical company was communicating with her team about preparing a presentation for a board meeting. She shared a quick idea over email—Do you think we should add more research on oncology to the presentation? In her own mind, she was convinced she’d said, Let’s add an extra two bullet points on this slide—but her brain was playing tricks on her. Two weeks later, her team had spent 30 hours or so preparing 40 slides on oncology research. The CMO had no idea the deck was coming and had frankly forgotten about the two bullet points she thought she’d proposed. But her team had gotten used to responding in full to her requests, and they seldom asked questions. Which made them feel even more devalued when their 40 slides turned into two bullet points on a slide.
Bottom line: if you’re the boss, be mindful of writing “think-alouds,” and separate them from true marching orders. If you’re on the receiving end, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions up front. A clarifying question is less embarrassing and time-consuming than a poor work product down the line.
Pillar #2 Communicate Carefully
Think before you type.
Once we press Send, we cede control over where our words end up. A private email we send to an acquaintance might show up later in a post on his or her public Facebook page. Messages and posts can be copied, forwarded, altered, and updated in ways that distort their fundamental meaning, not to mention translated instantly (and not always correctly) into almost any language. An email can show up from a customer or client without us knowing that our boss’s boss is included as a Bcc.
All this means one thing: we need to be very careful.
The first rule of Communicating Carefully? Slow down. Try this think-before-you-type checklist:
- Who needs to be included on this message?
- What do I want the receiver(s) to do after they read this message?
- What context or information do they need?
- What is the appropriate tone?
- When is the best time to send this message?
- What is the best channel to convey this message?
- How comfortable would I be if this message is screenshotted, forwarded, or otherwise shared? What can I do to change it? Or should I save this for a phone call or face-to-face meeting?
BE TONE-DEFT, NOT TONE-DEAF
Tone—the overall attitude, or character, of a piece of writing—is another key component of Communicating Carefully. Ask yourself: Who is the recipient? Who is the audience? What’s the context here? Tailor your communication accordingly
Naturally, this means anticipating how your words are likely to come across to others. When you write, text, or call your boss or colleagues, for instance, it’s best to keep your tone neutral until you develop a rapport that would indicate differently. Focus on being informative, or persuasive. Edit yourself so that you stick to the essential facts.
Consider the following email message: THIS IS NOT GOOD, NEEDS A LOT OF WORK!!!! It sounds like Zeus ordering a hit job on a lesser god—all caps, terse sentence structure, and a crazy picket fence of exclamation marks. If someone was trying to tear your head off, then mission accomplished. But if that same person was trying to convey respect, whoops!
Pillar #3 Collaborate Confidently
Stay in the loop.
Collaborating Confidently is about keeping all relevant parties informed and up-to-date while checking in constantly to ensure ongoing clarity in all components.
Collaborating Confidently begins by understanding what other departments do—and establishing clear norms on how they interact with one another.
Caroline, a team leader at a pharmaceutical company, designates “project team members” and “project advisors.” Team members are involved in decision-making and maintaining day-to-day activity, while project advisors provide expertise on specific subject matter and are only included on meeting summaries (keeping them in the loop) or in one-on-one conversations. Project team members who can’t attend a meeting are responsible for appointing a proxy to make decisions for them.
Assigning these roles has reduced Caroline’s 30-person brainstorming meetings into 6-person discussions. Things now get done much more quickly and efficiently.
FIGHT THOUGHTLESS DEADLINES
The word “deadline” can be traced back to the American Civil War—who knew? Back then, prisoner-of-war camps had boundaries known as “dead-lines”—prisoners who crossed them would be killed. In short, deadlines were serious back then.
In some places they still are. In a manufacturing plant, for example, a missed deadline can cause chaos for countless stakeholders along the supply chain. But in other settings, there is less at stake in missing a precise deadline, and deadlines are understood to be rough—calibrated for “noonish,” “ASAP,” or “first thing in the morning.”
When people are collaborating from different places and time zones, observing disparate working hours, overcoming language barriers, and more, meeting deadlines becomes much more difficult for all. And so it’s important for managers to have a system in place that creates realistic deadlines, clarifies the consequences of missing them, and considers contingencies for when (inevitably) something goes wrong.
ELIMINATE CHRONIC CANCELLATIONS
Canceling meetings is a real problem in the workplace. It’s getting worse too, since we’re all so overscheduled and overworked (at least we think we are). It’s easy to book time on someone else’s Outlook calendar—why don’t we just do it now, and bow out later if we have to?
But chronically canceling meetings can have company-wide repercussions, including lowered morale, lost team brainstorming time, and a general loss of confidence in leadership.
PRACTICE PATIENT RESPONSES
Digital hastiness can also foster groupthink and undermine team creativity. Six yes emails in a chain make it harder for the seventh person to say no. A rushed “Does everyone agree?” at the end of a video meeting doesn’t feel like a true invitation for discord.
Take a few additional moments of pause to re-read what you’ve just written. Are you saying what you think you’re saying? For all its drawbacks, asynchronous communication gives us time to process our words instead of just blurting them out. Needless to say, this is a very real advantage. Don’t automatically choose immediacy over a thoughtful response that can be all the more valuable.
Pillar #4 Trust Totally
Model the behavior you want to see in your teams.
What you model as a leader ultimately shows up in the culture of your teams. If you’re not clear when you assign tasks and responsibilities and you later chastise your team for failing to deliver on what you wanted, you erode trust. If someone challenges your idea and you shut that person down immediately, you further erode a company-wide net of psychological safety while giving your team implicit permission to shut down other members as well.
CREATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety means being able to speak your mind without fearing any negative consequences to your self-image, status, or career. Without psychological safety in place in a company, no one will ever speak up.
For this to work, it’s essential that leaders follow Satya Nadella’s lead in addressing mistakes or bad ideas: criticize the action instead of the person while giving your team your unwavering support.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE VULNERABLE
The more emphasis a leader places on vulnerability and learning, the easier it is for team members to speak up, ask questions, and embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. Communicate simple statements—“I may be missing something—I need to hear from you”; “I’ll admit that operations is not my strong suit, and I’m open to your suggestions”—that encourage your teams to speak up, and that also remind them how much you value their contributions. When someone offers feedback, accept it with grace: “Point well taken. We used to be a lot better at this and we lost sight of staff communications. I promise this will change.”
By now you might be wondering, If I take all the necessary steps to initiate these four pillars into my team, what exactly can I expect?
The answer? You can expect an organization that is resilient and adaptive, one that comes together in tough times as well as in good times.
- When you Value Visibly : Team members show up at work with excitement and drive. They’re motivated to make meaningful contributions and innovations, prompting employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
- When you Communicate Carefully: Teams present a single, united front, get projects done quickly and efficiently, and feel safe bringing up potentially groundbreaking ideas.
- When you Collaborate Confidently : You create organization-wide alignment on common goals without misunderstandings or petty disagreements, leading to cross-team collaboration, innovation, customer loyalty, and marketing effectiveness.
- When you Trust Totally: You create high levels of organizational faith, where people tell the truth, keep their word, and deliver on their commitments, in turn creating client/customer sales growth and cost-effectiveness.
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The digital body language cues you send – or don't send
Think about the last work email that you sent. Did its sentences end with full stops or exclamation marks, or did you forgo punctation altogether? Was it peppered with emoji – or plain text? And was your response prompt, or did you have to apologise for the time it had taken to reply?
Now, consider your last Zoom call. Did you check your phone or email at least once during the meeting? And did you pause to be sure that the other speaker had finished? Or did you find yourself frequently interrupting their sentences, as you failed to take into account the slight delays in the connection?
According to the leadership expert Erica Dhawan, these are all examples of our “digital body language” – a concept that serves as the title of her new book. Like our in-person physical body language, digital body language concerns the subtle cues that signal things like our mood or engagement, and change the meaning of the words we say – be it in text, on the phone or in a video call.
Needless to say, the rise of remote working during the pandemic has only made these issues more urgent, but psychologists have long known that digital communication is ripe for misunderstanding. For instance, Dhawan cites research from 2005 on how people interpret sarcasm. Overall, around 56% of people correctly detected the sarcasm when it was written in an email – barely better than chance – compared with 79% of people who heard the same words spoken out loud. And Dhawan’s own research suggests that these kinds of misunderstandings can lead to a major loss of productivity. In one recent survey of 2,000 employees and managers, she found that 70% report poor digital communication as a frequent barrier to their work , leading to around four hours of wasted time each week. “If you quantify that, it's 10% of a normal working week,” she says.
So, what can be done? Dhawan avoids offering hard and fast rules of online etiquette; instead, it’s a question of mindfulness, so that we can be sure that our digital body language is intentional and appropriate to the situation at hand.
First consider written communication, starting with the use of emoji and punctuation marks, like the exclamation point. Stylists may sneer, but Dhawan argues that they often help to clarify the meanings of the words themselves, much in the same way as a nodding head or a smirk in person. Whether you’re signalling urgency or excitement with ALL CAPS, impatience and irritation with an “?!?” or mutual appreciation with a fist-bump emoji, you are helping your text to convey the feelings you would have embodied in person.
Digital body language includes both how you communicate on video calls as well as through written communication, like email (Credit: Getty Images)
“Research shows that roughly 60% to 80% of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal language, such as the pacing, pauses, gestures and tone. All of these cues bring energy and emotional nuance to our message,” she says. “In many ways, punctuation and the use of symbols in a digital world are the new means of signalling that emotion.”
So, don’t feel shy about adopting these more informal digital cues, where appropriate – and be aware that others may well be expecting them.
Broadly, your use of punctuation and emojis are part of a bigger set of cues that will establish the tone of your exchanges – whether they feel formal or informal, enthusiastic or bored. Other signals will include your greetings (whether you include a friendly “Hello” at the start of the message or simply dive straight in), and your sign off (an emotionally distant “Regards” versus an enthusiastic “Thanks!”).
One common source of anxiety is when the tone of someone’s messages switches mid-way through an exchange. Sometimes this may be deliberate – perhaps we want to signal that we’re entering more formal territory – in much the same way that someone’s voice will change when they’re telling you something serious. But if it happens thoughtlessly, it may create needless anxiety, and should be avoided. And if, from a tonal change, you sense that something is off, Dhawan suggests that you pick up the phone and check in with the person directly.
When it comes to communicating carefully, less haste is more speed – Erica Dhawan
When exchanging written messages – be it email or direct messages – you should also think carefully about the timing of your responses, and what that may say about your engagement with the project or person in question. You may not want to answer a query until you are able do it justice, but the delay can seem like a lack of interest – resulting in sometimes intense anxiety. In these cases, Dhawan suggests that you send an initial short-and-sweet reply to signal that you will give it consideration in due course.
Ultimately, Dhawan thinks that simply proof-reading your messages to ensure that the meaning and the emotional subtext are as clear and appropriate as possible could turn out to save time and hassle in the future. “When it comes to communicating carefully, less haste is more speed.” It’s a simple step, perhaps, but one that is regularly forgotten.
Video calls present their own unique problems.
Your body language, manners and level of engagement on video-chat platforms can influence how colleagues see you and interpret your message (Credit: Getty Images)
There’s no easy way around that – in Dhawan’s view, we have to accept that video calls will involve a certain a
wkwardness. But she has many suggestions to improve the experience and enable easier turn-taking. In group calls, people could be asked to raise their hands before speaking, for example. It can also be useful to designate a moderator for the call, who can ensure people stick to an agenda and don’t get distracted.
As you might expect, Dhawan strongly advises against multitasking during these calls or allowing yourself to be distracted by other devices. “It is so obvious if you are busy looking down at your phone, when others are trying to make video eye contact with you,” she says. You may think no one will notice, but it signals a lack of engagement and enthusiasm. And if you know that there might be an interruption – such as another incoming call – it’s worth warning people in advance, she says, or at least putting a message in the chat box to explain why you have left, just to emphasise your respect for the people who are left in the meeting.
Trust and power
Whatever medium you use, Dhawan argues that you should remain conscious of two factors – trust and power – in all your interactions. These ratings will be subjective, of course, but if you sense there is a clear gap on either of these dimensions, you need to be more cautious. This principle applies to people at the top of the hierarchy, as well as those on the first rungs of the career ladder. An intern should be highly sensitive to their boss’s communication style to be sure they don’t slip into an inappropriately informal manner, but – equally importantly – a manager might consider whether their brevity is simply seen as a sign of efficiency, or whether it shows a general lack of interest in their employee’s wellbeing. Two colleagues who have worked together frequently could perhaps afford to be more relaxed in their digital body language – with more informal messages – but even then, you might regularly question whether you are really coming across the way you think.
Generally, we, should be especially careful to express our appreciation. “In the past, the handshake, the smile and the smile gave us those signals,” says Dhawan – but in online communication, our gratitude is often less apparent, or may not be expressed at all. Measures to remedy this could be as simple as sending a follow-up email, after a virtual meeting, to make it clear that you valued someone’s input, or cc’ing a junior colleague on an email to a client, acknowledging the role they played in a project. We can’t just assume that our colleagues will know how much we value them.
Like any skill, perfecting your digital body language will take practice – but a few moments of thought each day may save hours of anxiety and confusion in the days and weeks ahead.
Erica Dhawan’s book Digital Body Language , is out now from St Martin’s Press.
David Robson is the is author of The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise Your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions (Hodder & Stoughton/WW Norton) – out now in paperback. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
Language and Word Choice in the Digital Age
Language and word choice always matter, but selecting the correct language and words is particularly important in the digital age, when communication is extremely limited in its expressive nuances , and virtually limitless in who it is able to reach . These two realities make it vital to make sure that all writing you create is written carefully , respectfully , with your audience in mind , and with longevity in mind . Digital communication is likely to exist for a great deal of time, whether it is through the shorter, block format of social media, or the longer, supported format of scholastic or professional writing.
Why Is This True?
In-person communication is far more nuanced in its presentation, and involves numerous factors. A person’s body language, tone of voice, and inflection all matter tremendously in conveying meaning in a conversation, or even in a lecture hall or other formal setting. These nuances are not available in writing , which makes word choice and overall language essential to adequately and accurately communicate your ideas, wants, or needs in writing.
Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience is the first step in writing effectively in the digital age, as who your audience is will greatly impact the style of writing you select, as well as the tone and exact word choice you use. In formal, academic, or professional writing, word choice should be concise, and should reveal your authority . For this reason, language should focus on using technical jargon , if applicable, as in the case of writing about a scientific concept, or specific area of expertise.
In Less Formal Arenas
In less formal types of writing, such as communication with a professor, advisor, or other person in authority (whether that authority is technically over you or not), you need not use technical writing , but should always focus on using appropriate, respectful turns of phrase . If an email is being written to a professor or test proctor, for instance, be sure to use formal, straightforward language to state your request. For example:
Good afternoon, My name is ____ . I am writing to request a review of my work at your earliest possible convenience. Thank you.
This is far preferable to:
Hey! I’m ____ , and I was wondering if you could go over my work with me in the next couple of days. Let me know!
If an essay is being written for a class and does not require research, focus on using language that is appropriately reserved and descriptive, without being too personal, informal, or loose . Consider this example:
As a child, I was extremely reserved. Although I did not realize it then, there are several psychological concepts that could easily account for my reserved nature, three of which will be discussed in the body of this paper.
This is preferable to:
When I was a kid, I was really shy. Because I was a kid, I didn’t know why, but now I do, and I am going to talk about why here.
What Doesn’t Work in Digital Communication
When selecting word choice and language for a digital format, it is important to understand that some elements of speech that are readily identified in in-person communication are not easily conveyed in digital formats. Sarcasm , for instance, may be mistaken for genuine communication, as can joking and irony .
In all formal, academic, and professional settings, straightforward and sincere digital communication will help you avoid potential misunderstandings. Effective digital communication is also important because it is often readily accessed by a large number of people, all of whom may draw conclusions about you, your work, or your ability based entirely on how you express yourself.
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Digital Body Language
How to build trust and connection, no matter the distance, erica dhawan.
St. Martin's Press
ISBN10: 1250246520 ISBN13: 9781250246523
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Email replies that show up a week later. Video chats full of “oops sorry no you go” and “can you hear me?!” Ambiguous text-messages. Weird punctuation you can’t make heads or tails of. Is it any wonder communication takes us so much time and effort to figure out? How did we lose our innate capacity to understand each other? Humans rely on body language to connect and build trust, but with most of our communication happening from behind a screen, traditional body language signals are no longer visible—or are they? In Digital Body Language , Erica Dhawan, a go-to thought leader on collaboration and a passionate communication junkie, combines cutting edge research with engaging storytelling to decode the new signals and cues that have replaced traditional body language across genders, generations, and culture. In real life, we lean in, uncross our arms, smile, nod and make eye contact to show we listen and care. Online, reading carefully is the new listening. Writing clearly is the new empathy. And a phone or video call is worth a thousand emails. Digital Body Language will turn your daily misunderstandings into a set of collectively understood laws that foster connection, no matter the distance. Dhawan investigates a wide array of exchanges—from large conferences and video meetings to daily emails, texts, IMs, and conference calls—and offers insights and solutions to build trust and clarity to anyone in our ever changing world.
Praise for Digital Body Language
" Digital Body Language is an indispensable guide to a business world turned upside down by video calls, group texts, and remote work. With Dhawan’s expert guidance, you’ll learn how to read and send the subtle cues that signal trust, competence, and authenticity. You’ll discover practical tips for using everything from exclamation points to emojis. Most of all, you’ll understand that that effective communication and collaboration begin with valuing others.”— Daniel H. Pink, author of When , Drive , and To Sell Is Human “A profound look at how to foster inclusion and better leadership in our digital world."— Billie Jean King, Founder, Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative "Non-verbal cues are vital to understanding each other. Now that so much communication happens online—and with the massive shift to distance learning and remote workplaces—we need Erica Dhawan’s book more than ever."— Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of Lean In and Option B "One of the most common problems in digital life is that the intended message gets lost in translation, and we get trapped in an ongoing game of telephone. Erica Dhawan has compelling solutions to help us send and receive the right signals.” — Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and Originals , and host of the TED podcast WorkLife “ Digital Body Language brings us crucial insights and a playbook for communicating in our digital and virtual world!” — Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and the Ford Motor Company "This book is a breakthrough that will be read for years to come. People are already judging you by how you show up in the digital world, but now Erica Dhawan helps you figure out how to earn the benefit of the doubt."— Seth Godin, Author, The Practice " Digital Body Language is an extraordinary and essential book for our time. With powerful stories and fascinating research, Erica Dhawan masterfully shows that, even in our digital age, we can connect and make change together." — Susan David, author of Emotional Agility "If you're e-mailing, zooming, IM-ing etc. in your important relationships and for getting things done, professionally and personally, this is a must-read. Bravo, Erica."— David Allen, international bestselling author of Getting Things Done "Filled with lively and entertaining examples of real conversations, Digital Body Language gives you the tools to understand what can go wrong in communication—and to find a common language in which to strengthen relationships at work and at home. This book will change forever the way you approach digital conversations." — Tiffany Dufu, Founder of The Cru “Erica Dhawan is a true master of collaboration . . . no one committed to success and teamwork can afford to miss this opportunity to learn from her.” — Erik Spoelstra, Head Coach of Miami Heat “I love both the message and the messenger of this brilliant book. Listen to what Erica Dhawan has to say about digital body language—and then take her advice. This is the contemporary guidebook for inclusion and authenticity in the workplace, no matter our distance.” —Subha Barry, President of Working Mother Media "Trust is the ultimate currency in the digital age. This book is a must-read for leaders, offering tangible and authentic ways to strengthen trust and create a virtual work environment where people feel they truly belong." — Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, Accenture “This book is a gigantic leap towards communicating well in the digital age. It is a mandatory guide for anyone who wants to decode all the cryptic messages we are sending and receiving and be a more effective communicator and collaborator online.” —Rob Nail, Co-Founder of Singularity University “We are living at a time when becoming skilled in Digital Body Language is non negotiable. For everyone. It’s the digital application of emotional intelligence. I can’t think of anyone who would not benefit from reading this book.” —Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners and Author of Leading with Emotional Courage “In a world where innovation increasingly happens on-line, we must unlock the full potential of digital conversations and avoid its plentiful traps. Digital Body Language shows you how.” —Alex Osterwalder, entrepreneur, business model innovator, and author "A must-read for anyone wishing to introduce better communication and greater empathy in their workplace." — Pat Mitchell, Co-Founder; Curator TEDWomen; Chair, Sundance Institute and Women’s Media Center “Fascinating, helpful, and engaging . . . Dhawan offers this timely book on digital body language and creative ways to foster inclusion and belonging in digital communications in the workplace.” — Booklist “Written in an approachable style, this will be a useful resource for anyone who struggles with online communication.” — Library Journal “Dhawan’s high-energy advice comes right on time. Anyone trying to find their way through the new normal of office life will learn something from this real-world guide to respectful, productive communication.” — Publishers Weekly
Read an excerpt.
Introduction After co-authoring my first book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, I traveled the world, speaking and consulting with companies and leaders on the challenges of twenty-first-century...
Read the full excerpt →
About the author
ERICA DHAWAN is a globally recognized leadership expert and keynote speaker helping organizations and leaders innovate faster and further, together. Erica has spoken, worldwide, to organizations and enterprises that range from the World Economic Forum to U.S. and global Fortune 500 companies, associations, sports teams, and government institutions. Named as one of the top management professionals around the world by Global Gurus, she is the founder and CEO of Cotential - a company that has helped leaders and teams leverage twenty-first-century collaboration skills globally. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review . She has an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, MBA from MIT Sloan, and BS from The Wharton School.
Erica Dhawan →
Author Web Site
11 Non verbal communication examples: Reading Zoom body language
Enhanced emotional intelligence is a must for those who want to excel in the era of Zoom/remote work. Here are several tips to step up your non-verbal/body language skills.
These tips stem from my experiences in 10 years of digital sales, with supplemental knowledge from my recent work transitioning into career coaching.
11 Non verbal communication examples
1. Head tilted to the side
Positive sign. Means: “I’m listening/focused on you; go on”
2. Hand/finger/pencil on mouth (not supporting head)
Positive sign. Means: “I have something to say”
3. Hand under chin/head (supporting head) or rubbing eyes
Negative sign. Means: “I’m tired/fatigued/unengaged”
4. Slow speech, eyes wandering up and left/right
Neutral sign. Means: “I’m thinking/processing/not yet sure”
5. Up and down movement of hands/arms
Neutral sign. Means: “I’m confident/firm”
6. Leaning back/away
Negative sign. Means disengagement: “I’m undecided/processing or in disagreement”
7. Leaning in/forward
Positive sign. Means engagement: “I’m interested/excited”
UNLESS leaning on something to support weight of torso, then negative sign meaning “I’m fatigued.”
8. Slow head nodding (especially when combined with looking up right/left)
Positive sign. Means: “I’m processing or realizing and close to an ‘aha’ moment”
9. Wringing hands/fidgeting/squirming
Negative sign. Means: “I’m uncomfortable/nervous”
10. Raised eyebrows/wrinkled forehead (especially when combined with high inflection in voice):
Neutral sign. Means: “ I’m seeking alignment/vulnerable”
11. Compressed lips
Negative sign. Means: “I dislike/am opposed”
That’s all for today – thanks for reading! Learn more about how working with a personal development coach can help you to live a more fulfilling life, sign up for my newsletter , and stay tuned for more self-discovery essays!
If this subject has piqued your interest, I bet you’ll get a kick out of watching the below video on reading body language by an FBI agent, too!
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