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How to maximise your virtual impact

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Aug 2022

With homeworking now a staple for most businesses, virtual meetings and events are here to stay. Nevertheless, virtual setting can be a more challenging environment in which to communicate and connect.

Making an instant impact is important and, although research into the time it takes gives varying results, you only have seconds to make that first impression. According to Eve Tomlinson, a communications expert and ICAEW Academy trainer, “pretty much everything to do with instant impact has nothing to do with what you say”. 

Tomlinson says: “There has been a lot of research into instant impact in workplace scenarios. According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, what people are looking for in these initial interactions is quite simple: trustworthiness and competency. And in the first few seconds, this all relies on your non-verbals.”

So how do you maximise your impact on a virtual audience and keep them engaged? Tomlinson, founder of presentation training provider Thrive in the Hive, shares the following tips and techniques.

Maximise your virtual set-up and liberate non-verbal cues

We all know that non-verbals are limited in the virtual space. An immediate change you can make to your set-up ahead of any virtual meeting is to move back from your screen. “Across the board, I find that people are sitting far too close to their cameras,” says Tomlinson. “The problem with sitting too close is that you’re putting a disproportionate amount of pressure on your facial expressions, which can lead to miscommunication. You also stop yourself from being able to utilise the other non-verbals that you have at your disposal.”

One of these key non-verbals is hand gestures. A study by Judith Holler and Geoffrey Beattie found that hand gestures can increase the value of your message by 60%. Tomlinson says: “Hand gestures aren’t an add on, they are fundamental, and people who use them are seen as warmer and more engaged.” 

You also liberate your movement when you sit back from the screen and can use your non-verbal cues to help others feel more comfortable. Tomlinson explains: “When you’ve got your placement correct and somebody is speaking, it means you can lean in and encourage them. It means you can lean back and actively listen. All those listening techniques… the nodding, the smiling, they come into their own in this environment because we need to warm it up as much as possible.”

She adds: “A lot of impact isn’t really about what you say, it’s about how you make that other side feel. This is a difficult environment to make other people feel valued and heard, so really connecting with those non-verbals is important.”

Make eye contact and clarify your set-up

Eye contact is vital and is your strongest non-verbal tool, according to Tomlinson. Using eye contact effectively will help you to deliver your message. However, if you sit too close to the screen, the moment your eyes move right or left, it can look like you have lost concentration. 

In the virtual setting, you should clarify your way of working or presenting more than you would during in-person meetings, says Tomlinson. “I have been in a lot of meetings and workshops where people’s eye contact isn’t focused and it looks like they’re doing something else. We all know the pain of disengaged faces on the screen. If you are a prolific note taker, for example, and you look down all the time, I might think that you’re bored, or that you’re not interested. You’re not, you’re super interested, you’re taking notes.” A quick explanation about your note-taking at the start of the meeting, for example, can help you to clarify this and reassure the person you are engaging with.

Use speaking structures and ‘cuts’

For some, being put on the spot when asked to speak or answer a question can be quite daunting or can lead to deep dives into the detail. You may know the subject inside out, but the information you provide might not be in the best order. So how do we make our messaging more concise and focused?

Using the ‘what, so what, now what’ speaking structure is an effective way of organising your thoughts in the moment in a clear way, according to Tomlinson. Alternatively, you can set out the information using a problem, solution and benefit structure. 

Another tool to keep or re-engage the attention of your online audience is to think about how people engage with the screen. “Out of the workplace, we are used to screens delivering movement and variety to keep us hooked. We can introduce this on our own screens by creating ‘cuts’ in our information. Dr Carmen Simon has done some brilliant work on how to change the stimulus to get attention”, says Tomlinson. 

Tomlinson explains: “Making a cut can be as simple as introducing movement on the screen. It can be as simple as a hand gesture. It could also be a change in delivery style – from factual information delivery to conversation, from story to question. These are all cuts. And these are all techniques that we can use to re-engage the audience and increase our virtual presence.” 

Summing up, Tomlinson says: “Think about this rectangle. Think about how you are going to use it to maximum effect. Think about the non-verbals that you have at your disposal and how you are going to use them. You’ve got eye contact, you’ve got hand gestures, you have much more movement than you think. Make the other people feel valued and heard by using them, and by really clarifying what you’re doing.”

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