3 Digital Body Language Tips You Need To Know
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Personal Branding And Live Online Presence

If you google “digital body language,” you’ll find some references to Steve Woods, who started using the term in 2009 around data and marketing online and its meaning around the digital traces we leave behind us. You’ll also see lots of very broad and general marketing, personalization, and data articles. Here I want to share what you need to know about digital body language as an L&D professional as well as some concrete tips of what you can do on a personal level, and for your team, organization, and learners.

1. Personal Branding And Communications

When I was made redundant from my job, I realized that my reputation and the network internal to the organization didn’t make much difference when job hunting externally. I rapidly learned about going to conferences, blogging, social media, and a public professional image. This is part of personal branding and part of digital communication.

When people come to my company for webinar and virtual classroom training, most often they have found me through something public: social media, a blog or article I’ve written, a podcast or video I’ve been on, or a webinar I’ve run, even a webinar I contribute in chat to.

Whether you are running your own business, like I am, wanting to network to increase the pool of people you learn from, or thinking about your next career step, the digital body language in public settings is increasingly important. Just like being dressed right for the occasion, being mindful of what and how we say something at a networking event, or how we show up in deep and meaningful conversations one to one, our digital body language needs to match our intention.

With personal branding, this can be as simple as the Twitter name you choose and the profile picture you use across your social media accounts. When you see a LinkedIn profile picture of someone on holiday or with their kids, do you interpret that as great that they have a well-rounded life outside of work? If you see a posed photograph, do you interpret it as cheesy and uber-corporate? Some of that is down to the individual, but a lot of it is what is right for the platform and the industry you are in as well as what you want your future connections to be.

Top Tip: Your Profile Picture Should Be Professional And Show The Real You, Reflecting What You Do And Who You Are

With Twitter communications, getting something across in 280 characters can be challenging. We want to make a point; otherwise, you shouldn’t be tweeting. Perhaps it’s right to be balanced, there’s often a context or caveats to what we want to communicate; and, you can bet someone will reply and point it out if you don’t acknowledge it. We want to contribute to a discussion and ask people their thoughts, but can you ask in a way that doesn’t come across as negative and challenging?

Top Tip: Read It Back—What You See As Clarity Other’s Might See As A Negative Attack

There’s a lot of marketing and PR involved in social media channels. This is really important for the accounts of organizations as well as individuals. But as individuals we are just that; it should be our thoughts, opinions, and questions. There are some people that pose questions as food for thought. At what point are you someone who should actually be responding to people’s replies and are L&D professionals ever a big enough tour de force that it’s not necessary?

Top Tip: If You Wouldn’t Ignore People Speaking To You In Person, Don’t Do It On Social Media

There are so many other digital communications we are used to, such as email, text messaging; and some relatively newer instant messaging systems, such as WhatsApp; and, community platforms, such as Yammer and Slack. Here we need to consider our digital body language in a different way. It may not be as public, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as damaging if you get it wrong.

Erica Dhawan put this in an article about dealing with digital body language drama at work:

Have you ever been in a meeting and realized that you were left out of an email conversation at some point and are now out of the loop? Or, do you feel snubbed by being the last name on the CC’d list or even not being on it at all and having the email forwarded to you later? Whether intentional or not, these experiences can begin to erode workplace relationships.

She highlights issues that are decades old, around communications, inclusivity and human engagement. They are just coming out differently in a world that communicates digitally.

Top Tip: Digital communication can feel fast, but slowing down, thinking, and reflecting will get better results.

2. Live Online—Meetings, Webinars, And Virtual Classrooms

In the corporate world, a lot of our synchronous communications are in Skype or Teams meetings, on webinars or learning in virtual classrooms. Digital body language here, as a host, trainer or member of a team, is essential. In an interview, I was asked about analyzing a person’s digital body language and I highlighted that “what we lose by not being able to see someone’s traditional body language, we can gain by using the features of the technology and our own skills to engage individuals and understand them.”

In meetings, it can be as simple as using the webcam. Sure, not everyone likes it, and for valid reasons; it shows where we are, what we are doing, and it doesn’t allow us to do other things as it can become visually obvious. However, if you have enough light, a good enough image of the person, and can see your colleagues, it can support positive communication. You can see people’s surroundings to understand their situation, their faces to add context to what they are saying, and props can be shown or used, all of which can’t be done without a webcam.

If you feel that webcams in meetings are negative, you could well be right, but you have to understand why. It’s probably not the fault of the technology but it is something underlying that. I’ve been in meetings where I’m glad there’s not a webcam, as it means I can go on mute and do other things. Why? Essentially because the meeting was overly long, boring, and people don’t get to the point. Perhaps, I should have challenged the style of the meeting, but I didn’t, I just used the time as well as I could to dampen the frustration. If you don’t like the webcam on, why?

Top Tip: Webcams In Online Meetings Foster A Greater Sense Of Humanity And Connection

Another big area to focus on is the chat area where people can type in. I remember meetings in one organization where people were asking who was on the call when they could have looked at the attendees' list. They would ask if there were any questions and assume there weren’t any when they hadn’t looked at the chat area. They wanted suggestions and ideas, but only noted the ones they heard on the audio, so chat suggestions were lost in the notes.

All of this highlighted not only an individual’s lack of understanding about the technology they were using but, at an institutional level, it highlighted that there had been no investment in training on how to use this new tool and of setting the expectation of human engagement. What about those people using the chat area? They were effectively ignored. If they were confident enough, they would speak up, but many wouldn’t bother. This isn’t the way to run your meetings internally or connect with your people on a human level.

Top Tip: For Online Meetings, Learn The Tools And Use Chat To Include Everyone

In webinars and virtual classrooms, it can feel like it’s just you and a computer screen, whether you are presenting or attending. Ensuring that you have a chat window on your webinar so that people can communicate and learn from others is essential. If you are expecting a busy webinar, a moderator can help with the flow of conversation, keep things on track, highlight pertinent points to a presenter and answer the questions of individuals.

You do have to be careful though. On a public webinar I attended, the chat moderator kept typing in capital letters, the equivalent of shouting in digital body language, “Keep On Topic.” As someone using the chat and getting a lot from it, I didn’t see anything that was out of bounds. Everything was relevant to the key points being discussed. All the time people are in the chat area and discussing, they aren’t on their email ignoring you.

When interviewed about digital body language for facilitating in virtual classrooms, I shared the following:

By deconstructing what you know about body language and how you present or facilitate, you can then find equivalents in a live online platform. Normally, I would look around a room to see if people are understanding the conversation or look if they have questions. I can’t do that without webcams in a session, so instead, I could ask a closed question for people to respond with a tick/cross and then get them to expand in the chat window or on audio.

Top tip: Look for the equivalent in a platform, not what you feel is missing.

3. Data And Systems

Data and its analysis is something that scares a lot of people, but finding an application for the data can help us in L&D. 96% of more than 700 L&D professionals stated in the Towards Maturity (now Emerald Works) report L&D’s Relationship With Data that “having the skill to explore and analyze data is one of the highest priorities for future L&D teams.” However, the report also states that “51% say they cannot use data effectively due to L&D lacking in-house data skills and 48% report that L&D lack of knowledge is a serious barrier to exploring and exploiting data effectively.”

Top Tip: Data Analysis Is Needed, But Our Industry Isn’t Good At It

Get curious about it to stay ahead of the curve. The first thing to establish is what systems you have access to, either as an individual L&D professional or as part of the team or company you are in or supporting. You might be a consultant and not have access to anything from your clients, but you can ask the right questions as well as read public data from the company and look at industry information and trends. This doesn’t have to be an all-day affair—when speaking to a new client, I often skim through the yearly board report of the company they are from, for some high level of understanding. Sometimes, something will come up in conversation that may impress the person I’m talking to or at the very least help me understand the context of what they are talking about.

Likewise, understanding a bit more about an industry or sector can be valuable. It might just be ten minutes on Google and reading some overviews or articles that give you some nuggets you didn’t know before or understanding the gist of how an industry has changed or where it’s heading.

Top Tip: Data Analysis Isn’t Always About Spreadsheets; It Can Be Reading Reports And Blogs So That An Expert’s Analysis Can Be Synthesized With Your Own Knowledge

If you are internal, you may have access to more than you think—and the same suggestions from above count. In L&D we need to become more business-savvy, and part of this is numbers. Whilst my mental arithmetic isn’t usually trustworthy, the concept of what I understand about how to use data and numbers in business has been developed over years of doing the above and actually using numbers more and more. It’s not about the raw data and math, it’s about being inquisitive enough to ask questions and wanting the answers to help people, and data is part of that.

Decibel has some examples of data and digital body language which might spark some ideas of how you can use it.

Top tip: There’s going to be internal and external data you have access to. Just ask, and then discuss and learn to make sure your L&D goals work with this data.

Bringing It All Together

These 3 focus areas are distinct, but in the real world work together. Personal branding, such as the image on your Twitter and LinkedIn profile, as well all as analysis of your tweeting history, for example, can come together. Likewise, in a live Twitter chat, how you show up, what you say and to whom makes a difference in how people react to you as a professional.

How are you going to show up differently live online in the future?

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