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Get a Clue about Non-verbal Cues

Kupe FeatureArticle april23I was recently on a flight and out of nowhere the turbulence got bad — I mean real bad. I could feel the sweat bead on my forehead and I felt queasy. I looked up and half the plane grabbed for the air controls trying to turn them up. People with hats on took them off and wiped their head, indicating to me that I was not alone. By the frantic nature of some I could tell they could not get to their barf bag fast enough. No one had to tell me they were sweating or nauseous. I could tell by their actions. Their actions are the non-verbal cues. 

You lead many meetings and presentations so it is imperative you have a clue about non-verbal cues. Over the years I have become better at gauging my audiences in classes, presentations and meetings, which allows me to adjust on the fly if I feel I am losing my audience. This post is not just about what to look for; it’s mainly about what to do so you will be looking for it and how to avoid the bad non-verbal cues.

Most of you probably know to look for facial expressions, how people are sitting, if they are engaged in the conversation or trying with everything they have to keep their eyes open. If people are slouched over, looking at their phones or falling asleep, you know they’re not engaged. Something is not right and you have to make an adjustment. If they are sitting up, leaning in, asking questions, or participating fully in exercises, you can feel good that they are engaged in the session.

The first thing is to make sure you do what is necessary before the session to ensure people are engaged. For purposes of this post, let’s consider the sessions as elicitation sessions, requirements reviews or UAT sessions: meetings or presentations that happen during a project or initiative. First, make sure you invite the right people to the meeting and ensure they know why they were invited. I recently heard someone say that a meeting you are leading is the participant’s party, not yours. So they need to know why their attendance is so important. 

Next, know your stuff. You need to be prepared for meetings. I’ve written about this before. With many organizations having a back-to-back meeting culture, this is difficult. How do you prepare for one meeting when you are in another? It’s not possible. It is imperative you block off time in your calendar to prepare for meetings. This can be accomplished by blocking off time between meetings or blocking off some time at the beginning of the day to get prepared for all the meetings you have. If you are prepared, you can relax in the meeting and stay focused, not on the content, but on the people. If you are so focused on or nervous about the content of the meeting or presentation, you will not be paying attention to the audience and their non-verbal cues. 

Side note: if you do not feel prepared or you want some help, ask a colleague to be your non-verbal cue eyes. In a long one-day meeting I had, my colleague called a break in a meeting I was leading. At the break she clued me in on her take of the non-verbal cues so I made some adjustments. The meeting went well after the break. 

Now that the meeting is starting, what should you do? Show some excitement! If you are not excited about the meeting, why should anyone else? If you appear bored everyone will take the cue from you and be bored as well. I know some of you have heard someone leading a meeting say, “This is going to hurt me more than…” sorry that was my dad! They’ll say, “I don’t want to be here any more than you do.” That is a big no, no. That gives everyone the go ahead to disengage. 

In the session, make it interesting for the audience. Don’t push content on them. Ask questions, do an exercise and get people moving. Think about the types of meetings you enjoy more and gain more benefit from. Is it the ones where someone talks to you for an hour and gives you content, or the ones where you are engaged and part of the meeting? Most people prefer the latter. 

But how do you get a sense for non-verbal cues in a virtual meeting? Glad you asked. In a virtual environment, you can do the same thing. You still need to be prepared. I argue you need to be more prepared because it is easier for people to disengage or become confused. And since you can’t see them, unless you are using video, it takes more work to gauge the audience. The good thing is the technology available to us is improving. To gauge engagement, ask questions and have the attendees respond using the raise-hand feature, the chat feature or have them respond via the phone line. If people don’t react in a timely manner, that is a sign they have disengaged or checked out. The response time is your non-verbal cue. Some tools now have a feature where the attendee can indicate they stepped away. Instruct the attendees to use that so you know who is in the “room” and who is not. If you have a presentation, don’t sit on one slide for too long. In our virtual classes we use the 60, 10, 5 rule. For every 60 minutes we give a 10-minute break and have interactions with the student at least every 5 minutes.

Even if you are prepared and invite all the right people, there are situations where someone does fall asleep. The best thing you can do is not get flustered or take it personally. What helps me is I assume the person just partied hard the night before. I feel bad for them. Then I take it as a challenge to get him and everyone else very involved.

To more engaged and productive meetings,


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