How to Look Engaged on a Zoom Call

4 techniques to go from common courtesy to showing real interest

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The easiest way to look engaged is to actually be interested.

Sadly, every day, millions of topics are discussed in millions of meetings, many of which are of no interest to us at all. John veers off the topic to bring up his pet project. Georgina tells her whole life story instead of giving us the quarterly figures.

That’s frustrating, and while you can and should try to re-focus a meeting whenever it happens, it’s up to your boss, his boss, and her boss’s boss to change the nature of meetings in your organization. Sure, you can push for shorter times, strict agendas, and a round robin system, but until everyone acts in concert, how each meeting goes down won’t change.

That said, I’ll never forget what I learned from James Altucher about being a great employee. In an article about his time at HBO, he said:

I WAS HBO. That was my mantra. I became so absorbed in every aspect of the company that I knew that any idea I had would be a good idea for the company. At least I felt this (not sure if anyone else did). I never said, “I think this”, I said, “We should do this”. HBO and I were a “We”. Inseparable. Until you have that feeling of unity with the company you work for, you can’t rise up.

By the end of my six-month internship at BMW, I too kept saying, “we,” and people would stop me and ask: “What do you mean?” I was happy at the company because I identified with the product, and so, eventually, I identified with the company too. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but I think it had a lot to do with my boss calling me their “best intern ever” when I left.

The only way to truly succeed in a company is to live and breathe what it stands for. You have to absorb every part of it. “Become the company,” James says. Study its history — and the history of its people. Who got which job how? Learn everything there is to know about the product and get to know as many people as you can over lunch. I know this is a big commitment. Whether you can and want to make it to your company, only you can decide.

In the meantime, I want to help you look more engaged in meetings. The following tactics work both for Zoom calls and in-person appointments. You can think of them as “fake it till you make it” ideas or genuine ways of expressing your passion for your work. No matter how you might see them right now, their goal is to help you develop a real interest eventually.

Here’s how to look — and become — more engaged in meetings.

1. Lean forward

Leaning forward is the business equivalent of scooting towards the edge of your seat while watching a movie: It literally shows you’re “drawn in” to the situation.

Leaning forward is a fundamentally human expression, even if, today, it’s mostly metaphorical. Our ancestors had to move closer to objects to examine them: plants, objects, animals. It was an act of caution: The berry might be poisoned, the object might be dangerous, the animal might suddenly move.

Today, we still “move closer” to better understand things — even if those things are mostly abstract concepts. We’ll “lean in” to a conversation because it brings us closer to the person talking — and thus closer to their ideas.

Leaning forward instead of leaning away is a strong, positive body language signal. You show people validation and trust, which, especially in meetings, is crucial.

While leaning forward is most obvious when you’re sitting across one another directly or at least at a table, I find it also works on Zoom calls. I often lean towards my screen and sometimes tilt it, which makes it look a bit as if I’m “looking from above.” It makes me feel as if I’ve got a better overview, and it’s definitely better than being a small, pixelated face in one corner of the screen.

Zoom calls are a bit like great paintings: The closer you go, the more interesting details you’ll find.

2. Nod

I nod along so much in conversation, you’d think I’m a bobblehead. I do it because it’s a nice, silent way of acknowledging what’s being said.

I do say “yes,” “mmhmm,” and “exactly” from time to time, but you don’t want to interrupt people every five seconds just to confirm you understand what’s going on. Just nod. Talking is silver, silence is gold.

This is especially true on a Zoom call. With out-of-sync audio, background noises from multiple sources, and people cross-talking because of lag, you don’t want to add more noise and friction; you want to help smoothen the flow of the conversation.

Nodding along does just that. It’s a nice, short, visual cue that the speaker can move on. Use it.

3. Smile

If you don’t smile a lot, making a grumpy face loses its power. There are definitely moments when a sad, annoyed, or frustrated look can send an important signal — but if those looks are your defaults, no one will know when something is actually wrong. It’s a bit like a child lying about being sick too often — eventually, no one will believe him when it hurts.

Smiling, on the other hand, isn’t just a beautiful reward for the speaker, who, in most cases, has spent a lot of time, thought, and energy on what they’re saying, it’s also a signal of trust that you’ll assess the information at hand in good faith. If you look skeptical every time someone gives you a fact or number, they’ll likely get defensive immediately whenever you do later criticize said fact or number. So even if you are skeptical a lot, don’t insta-reveal your doubts on your face. Handle them in private first.

Finally, smiling will make your own day better at nearly all times. Smiling is always worth a try.

4. Use hand gestures

If done right, using your hands lightens the mood of a meeting. It also helps get important points across. Visuals intuitively allow us to process information faster, even if we don’t realize how it’s happening.

Charlie from Charisma on Command explains there’s a big difference between open palms with tensed but flexible hand muscles (good) and the classic, nervous, hands-folded-on-my-lap position (bad).

Language expert Vanessa Van Edwards says you should always highlight numbers with your fingers, and that showing sizes (a “biiiig” achievement, a “tiny” problem) can help put things into perspective for the listener.

Even if our hands are never the focus of a conversation, whether they’re a part of it matters. This applies on a Zoom call as much as it does in real life. Using your hands brings movement into the otherwise stiff image of several floating heads. It allows you to break the tension with a funny gesture and to make what you talk about feel more vivid in people’s minds.

The next time you’re in a meeting, try a small gesture, then go from there.

There is no question that, in many a company, meeting culture must change. Every year, millions of hours and dollars are wasted because highly creative, highly productive people are stuck in 20-person Zoom calls on which nothing gets done — and which only keep them from doing the real work that comes after.

Culture, however, isn’t a fast and easy thing to change. It takes time and persistent effort. What we can change quickly, however, are our attitude and expectations. That process you can start in a minute.

I know work isn’t everything, and how much you want to commit to living and breathing your company is up to you — but just because a lot of the information shared in meetings isn’t directly relevant to you right now doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful down the line. Life is a mystery, and we never know when old ideas will become worth revisiting.

Therefore, looking engaged in meetings isn’t just a show of respect to your peers, it’s an effort worth making for your own sake. Best of all, it’ll become a real investment into your work over time.

When you lean forward, you become more interested. When you nod, you actually acknowledge. When you smile, you do assess information more favorably, and when you make gestures, you bring ideas closer not just to others but also to yourself.

The easiest way to look engaged is to actually be interested. “Fake it till you make it” can’t be the end of it — but it sure is a start.


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