Take charge of your digital body language

The world's gone digital and it's not going back. We've become increasingly dependent on communication tools such as video conferencing to stay in touch with our clients and colleagues. However, these tools also present challenges when you're used to meeting face-to-face. At IMPACT® 2021, Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, explained how a new kind of body language can help you communicate more effectively.

Why digital communication is so challenging

According to Dhawan, when we communicate online, we lose some of the context we otherwise enjoy in person. We use fewer words in emails and text messages, and we don't have voice, gestures, or facial expressions to help convey our meaning. Video is better, but context is often lost through a small screen. Lags or glitches can interrupt the flow of conversation.

Fewer cues mean more opportunity for miscommunication. Dhawan described how leaders waste an average of four hours each week because of unclear communication. When we're online we tend to:

  • Misunderstand quickly. The accelerated speed of digital communication limits our ability to confirm what's been said, leading to misunderstandings.
  • Speak freely. We're more likely to write or say something awkward when we're online and less likely to see the potential harm.
  • Argue more. Small differences of opinion can get magnified.
  • Walk away faster. It's easy to end a difficult digital conversation because you don't see the person in front of you waiting for an answer.

When we're online, "body language doesn't disappear. It's transformed" into digital cues, says Dhawan. She offered "four laws of digital body language" to help advisors overcome digital communication challenges with clients and staff.

Law #1: Value Visibly

When we communicate digitally, people can seem far away, less "real." As a result, we might forget to fully engage with them. But the rules of collegiality and leadership still apply online.

  • Recognize fellow staff members. An email may not make a colleague feel as seen and valued as much as a verbal "good job!" in a group video conference.
  • Accommodate personality differences. Encourage introverts who tend to recede into the background in digital group settings and manage extroverts so that they don't take up all the airtime.

Law #2: Communicate Carefully

There are generational differences in how people like to communicate, and advisors should keep in mind their clients' and internal teams' preferences.

People who have grown up with digital technology tend to:

  • Prefer informal modes of communication such as text messages.
  • Avoid making phone calls or leaving voicemail messages.
  • Use each communication tool consistently. 
  • Communicate more frequently but send shorter messages.

People who have adapted to technology later in life typically:

  • Prefer phone calls.
  • Hesitate before embracing new technology.
  • Use communications somewhat inconsistently. For example, they may send urgent messages inappropriately via email.
  • Communicate less frequently, but with messages that are more detailed.

Take your time. Rushing your digital communications can lead to missed cues and misunderstandings. Before hitting "send," consider how clients and co-workers will likely interpret a particular kind of message and adjust your approach if you're not sure the message will be received as intended.

We've all received online communications that seem insensitive or disagreeable but may not reflect the sender's true meaning. When this happens, pick up the phone and speak directly to that person so you can better understand the intention behind the message.

Law #3: Collaborate Confidently

Consider the type of message you're sending and its level of urgency when choosing the appropriate form of digital communication. This will help ensure that you collaborate and communicate efficiently, and with confidence:

  • Instant messaging, texts, and phone calls are best for simple, time-sensitive matters.
  • Long-form channels, such as email and video conferencing, are appropriate for complex issues that don't require immediate action or a quick reply.

When you're not meeting in person it's particularly important to maintain basic best practices for effective collaboration:

  • Respect people's time. Run organized meetings with concise agendas to set expectations and guide progress.
  • Say what you'll do and do what you say. Make your intentions clear, and stay true to the commitments you make.
  • Set realistic expectations. Don't over-promise when committing to specific timelines or outcomes. Ask for urgent responses only if truly critical. Reset expectations when necessary.
  • Effectively exchange information. Pay attention to important details, take the time to summarize and prioritize, and inform the right people at the right time.

Law #4: Trust Totally

Creating a culture of trust is critical in any business. But maintaining trust can pose a challenge as we interact more digitally and less in-person.

You can jumpstart conversations to instill trust by showing vulnerability: Share moments from your life, talk about tricky situations with clients, or acknowledge something you don't know much about but are trying to learn. By opening up, you give others permission to bring their whole selves to work.

Taking Charge

The tools of communication might change, but best practices for how to be a good communicator, advisor, and colleague don't. As Dhawan reminds us, always be mindful of your "digital body language" and continue to look for ways to communicate better in digital spaces.

What you can do next


Based on Erica Dhawan's presentation at IMPACT®2021.