Are Your Nonverbal Cues Sending the Right Message? 

How you say something matters just as much as what you say. Watch out for these common nonverbal communication mistakes and ace your presentations.

Published on May. 31, 2023
Are Your Nonverbal Cues Sending the Right Message? 
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Ever notice that you gesture when talking on the phone, even when the other person can’t see you? That’s because we’re programmed to use gestures to help convey meaning.

Scientists hypothesize that we rely so much on the unsaid because understanding physical cues used to keep us alive. Early humans used nonverbal communication long before we had words to determine whether the other person intended to help or hurt us. We use all of our senses to quickly determine whether someone is a friend or foe. We quickly scan for meaning beneath words.

8 Nonverbal Communication Mistakes

  1. Avoiding eye contact
  2. Fidgeting
  3. Monotone voice
  4. Hesitant speech
  5. Distracted by our notes
  6. Shadowed face 
  7. Over-gesturing
  8. Under-gesturing

We pay attention to tone and volume of voice, rhythm and pace of speaking, words emphasized, enunciation, gestures, facial expressions, proximity and posture. We read eye contact, stance, and gestures to determine status, decide who can be trusted, and recognize the difference between ally and enemy. 

Today, our brains are still highly attuned to listening and watching for signals first. Our minds are deeply encoded to evaluate what people do over what they say. And we’re constantly monitoring and re-evaluating their behaviors based on minute adjustments they make.


7 Common Types of Nonverbal Cues 

  1. Facial expressions: Smiling, frowning, brows knitted together or wide eyes.
  2. Eye contact: Looking directly at each person or not making eye contact; making fleeting eye contact or holding eye contact too long.
  3. Gestures: Nodding or giving a thumbs-up (we can gesture with our head too, something Abraham Lincoln was noted for).
  4. Posture: How you sit or stand. Are you open or closed, angled toward or away?
  5. Proprioception: Our spatial relationship to things and people around us; the sense that tells us where our body is in space.
  6. Autonomic reactions: Automatic responses such as rapid breathing or sweating.
  7. Touch: Physical contact with the audience such as handshakes and hugs.

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Why Reading Nonverbal Cues Virtually Is So Hard

In virtual communications, technology muffles the signals we rely on, greatly diminishing our ability to process cues and behavior. The camera shrinks and flattens us.

Eye contact is actually camera contact. And most of the time, all we have to look at is a huge talking head with little stick fingers that pop in and out of the frame. Even our voices are significantly distorted.


Common Virtual Nonverbal Communication Mistakes

In fact, here are some common incongruences that affect both in-person and virtual presentations:

  1. Not making eye contact: Telling people we’re “so thrilled to see them” as we glance away.
  2. Fidgeting: While annoying on stage, small movements are magnified in virtual. For example, rocking back and forth in our chair can read: I’m bored and ready to move on or I’m extremely uncomfortable.
  3. Monotone voice: We say we’re excited about something but we sound bored to tears.
  4. Hesitant speech: We insist we’re confident, but we say um or y’know every five words.
  5. Distracted by our notes: We tell people we want to connect with them but look like we’re reading off a teleprompter, confidence monitor, or second screen.
  6. Shadowed faces: When our lighting only reveals part of our face, our expressions are difficult to interpret
  7. Over-gesturing: Do we want our audience to look at us—or at our hands?
  8. Under-gesturing: When we don’t show our hands at all, we appear to have something to hide.


What Message Are Your Nonverbal Cues Sending?

We tend to think about someone’s gestures only when they’re alarming or out of sync with what the person is saying. But we constantly decode subtle messages through voice and body language. Our vocal patterns and nonverbal communications directly signal what we feel, think, and intend. Without knowing it, our actions can tell people to ignore our words.


Avoiding Eye Contact

What You Say: “We can do that.” 

Nonverbal Cue: Averted eye contact. 

How It’s Interpreted: “I have no idea if we can do that.”


Leaning Back in Chair

What You Say: “Let’s get started!” 

Nonverbal Cue: Leaning back in the chair.

How It’s Interpreted: “I don’t want to be here.”


Eyes Darting

What You Say: “I’m excited to be here today.”

Nonverbal Cue: Eyes darting back and forth between notes and the camera. 

How It’s Interpreted: “I have no idea what I’m doing, or I’m so nervous I could cry.”


Vocal Filler

What You Say: “This strategy is bold and will ensure our success.”

Nonverbal Cue: Inserting lots of “ums” and “uhs.” 

How It’s Interpreted: I don’t believe in this strategy.


Clenching Jaw

What You Say: “Everything is fine.” 

Nonverbal cue: Clenching jaw, or speaking through gritted teeth. 

How It’s Interpreted: “I’m pissed as hell.”



What You Say: “Everything is under control or I’m calm.”

Nonverbal Cue: Hands fluttering rapidly in and out of frame. Feet “dancing” around the stage or shifting from foot-to-foot. 

How It’s Interpreted: “I’m a wreck. I’m an emotional mess. I’m scared to death.”


Shrugging Shoulders

What You Say: “This matters to me.”

Nonverbal Cue: Shrugging shoulders. 

How It’s Interpreted: “I couldn’t care less.”


Not Showing Video

What You Say: “I love connecting with people.”

Nonverbal Cue: Not showing my video. 

How It’s Interpreted: “No I don’t.” 



What You Say: “I want to be here.” 

Nonverbal Cue: Slouching, leaning head into hand on desk.

How It’s Interpreted: “I’m tired.”


Eye Contact

What You Say: “This strategy is bold and will ensure our success.”

Nonverbal Cue: Looking directly at the camera. 

How It’s Interpreted: “Let’s do this!”

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Why Nonverbal Cues Are Important

Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we observe someone else performing or experiencing an action. To our brains, it's as if we performed the act.  We need those mirror neurons to understand each other. But in virtual, we lose much of the opportunity to activate them because we can’t fully see or hear someone. With this limited information, congruency between your words and actions is even more critical in amplifying the feelings you want your audience to experience.

People’s brains are trained to trust visual signals, so the words we say must align with the actions we show to be believable. Be aware of how nonverbal cues like gestures and facial expressions affect your audience — they feel what you feel. Make intentional choices about your nonverbal communication to support the tone and meaning you want to convey.


Excerpted from The Non-Obvious Guide to Better Presentations: How to Present Like a Pro (Virtually or in Person)by Jacqueline Farrington. Copyright © 2022 by Jacqueline Farrington. Published by Ideapress Publishing, Non-Obvious Guides.

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