Practical analysis for investment professionals
05 February 2018

Let’s Get Physical: Body Language and Success

Why should financial advisers care about our body language?

According to Mark Bowden, a global authority on nonverbal communication and author of Winning Body Language and the forthcoming Truth and Lies, co-written with Tracey Thomson, among other books, we can use our body language to stand out, win trust, and gain credibility every time we communicate with our clients. And I know he’s right because it worked for me!

I had one of my worst ever meetings with a potential client in 2010. Tens of millions of dollars in assets were up for grabs. Though I put in a lot of effort, this particular meeting went so poorly that I felt compelled to figure out where I had gone so wrong.

As a former Xerox sales rep, I know how to sell, and as a CFA charterholder, I know about finance, but some other factor had derailed this meeting. A friend suggested that it might be body language, so I booked some time with Bowden. He had good insights that I used to great effect. I checked back in with him in last month to see what his “greatest hits” of advice would be for finance professionals.

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Barbara Stewart, CFA: Let’s use my 2010 scenario: a typical meeting with a large prospect that went wrong for mysterious reasons.

The prospective client wanted to invest business proceeds and was interviewing money managers. I invited our smartest analyst to join us, prepared our pitch, and knew all the history of the company that had been sold.

The meeting went fine, seemingly. But I had a feeling that there would be no second meeting . . . and there wasn’t. The prospective client made one excuse after another about why he couldn’t get together with us. And then I was sorry (although not surprised) to hear through the grapevine that he had selected a different manager.

You can’t win every deal, and we all know that, but we want our batting average to be as high as possible. Sometimes, body language can help us get that edge.

What will improve the odds that we’ll win more new client relationships?

Trust and credibility.

Even if a prospective client has been referred to you by someone they trust, they are still going to look for their own indicators that you are trustworthy and credible. No matter what other items are on their shopping list (such as investment style or fees), a decision to do business with you will always come down to their assessment of your trust and credibility. And body language is a critical part of that.

What does “I am trustworthy” body language look like?

Cultivate the body language of openness. Maximize your body.

A prospective client wants to see that their adviser is confident and in control. They are coming to you for help. Our brains equate “bigger” with “more powerful,” so set up an environment where you can display more of your body.

Take up space. For example, during the meeting take the cup of coffee that is on your right and place it a full arms-length away from you. This way they can see your entire arm. But don’t place the cup in their personal space, keep it in your territory.

What NOT to do?

1. Do not show a look of disgust or disdain.

Of course you know that. But did you know that this reaction can happen in one-fifteenth of a second and be perceived by your client? Your prospect might be telling you about how much fun they had at a model train convention or some other activity you don’t appreciate, and this might repulse you. Your nostrils might flare slightly. Your lip might show a very tiny curl. This language says, “I don’t accept that; I judge that.” It tells your prospective client that what they have just said doesn’t mix with your social group. Their tribe isn’t your tribe. It’s hard to stop this kind of instinctive reaction, but you have to be aware of what your body is doing and revealing to the client.

2. Do not look off to the side. Keep eye contact.

There are so many well-educated analysts who are more than happy to share their knowledge with everyday people. But all of those years of study fail to pay off when they look off to the side . . . lost in their own technical, geeky world. That sideways glance is condescending and tells the prospective client that they aren’t worthy of eye contact. And the relationship gets lost in that instant.

How can we maintain and grow our existing client relationships?

Foster a feeling of intimacy.

With existing clients, you presumably already have a good relationship and your focus is on working to maintain and build this relationship. To reinforce the relationship, you need to gather more data about your client and their family. So find a way to make your client feel comfortable enough to give you even more data about themselves than they have in the past.

If you can build a feeling of intimacy, your clients are more likely to provide you with more information. For example, you might hear that they despise a particular sister-in-law because of how she influences the brother’s money decisions. This type of intimate discussion is a sign that your relationship is moving in the right direction.

To maintain and build intimacy, use nonjudgmental body language.

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What does nonjudgmental body language look like?


If a client is in the middle of telling you that they hate their sister-in-law, they need to see acceptance from you. Sit in a very open position with arms away from your stomach and chest so that your client can see more of your body. The more that your client can see of you, the more optimistic they will be about you. They will default to a positive feeling about you.

When they are sharing data with you, you need to be really open. You don’t necessarily have to be in agreement but they are looking for acceptance, and the aftermath of acceptance — advice.

What NOT to do:

1. Do not cover any part of your face. Ever.

Many advisers will put their hand on their chin when they are listening and thinking about something a client is saying. But a client may perceive this as negative and will close down. This means no more data will be forthcoming. If we look at someone who is covering part of their face we default to the negative and feel that they are judging us.

2. Do not scrunch any part of your face.

If someone is telling you about something that concerns them, you may adopt a facial expression of “pained empathy.” You are indicating that you pity them, that you feel their pain. But if you think about what this expression actually looks like, it looks like you have been stung by a bee. It is not an appealing look. Your client will feel misunderstood and will default to the negative.

What is the most important body language tip for maximizing success in business?

It’s all about the environment.

To maintain your existing clients and to attract new clients, you need to build relationships. Imagine the kind of body language that would provide a feeling equivalent to being in front of a warm fire.

If a meeting isn’t going very well, the environment is often to blame. For example, if you are sitting in an overly air-conditioned room, you will naturally hunch your shoulders and minimize your body to try and stay warm. This conveys to your client that the meeting isn’t very pleasant for you.

What about the boardroom?

Old habits die hard. Your firm’s boardroom may look impressive, but that’s not where you should start building a relationship with a client.

One reason not to use the boardroom is that you get hidden behind the big boardroom desk. If you have to be there, sit kitty-corner — at right angles to them, not face to face. Why? Because sitting directly across from each other is antagonistic — it feels like you are looking for an argument. Parliament was set up that way and they call it “The Opposition” for a reason.

Another reason not to use the boardroom?

More and more we are seeing a transfer of wealth between generations. This means that there are likely to be people of different age categories in family meetings.

Boardroom tables were designed for the monarchy. The king’s dining table had all of the power at one end, with the person sitting to the king’s right literally being his right-hand man. That’s great for the 1500s, but not appropriate in 2018, especially for millennials. Move to an environment where there is more equal distribution of power.

Think about alternative ways to engage with clients. For example, point out the boardroom while you are doing a walk-around introducing your client to the firm. Make it just one part of a conversation that includes the coffee area, the art collection, the trading room, and the back office. Give your client a sense of the overall look and feel of the environment.

Move around. Be in control. Shift the thinking process. If you feel like the office meeting is making anyone feel stuck . . . go out for coffee!

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Is the ideal body language different for female and male advisers?

In fact, body language is more similar than different between the genders.

But we live in a world where many people still have the idea or stereotype that women should be physically smaller and men should be physically bigger. So whether we like it or not, female advisers will need to work even harder at maximizing their body language to project a feeling that they are in control.

What is the most important rule to remember about body language?

When it comes to body language, there are no rules. There are only results — results that you either wanted or didn’t want.

I still don’t have a specific answer as to why I didn’t win that $20-million new business opportunity. But I can tell you that I have never again had such an awkward meeting since I’ve become more “open” and I’ve started to “maximize.”

My advice? Make body language part of your adviser toolkit in 2018.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/CSA Images/Snapstock

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About the Author(s)
Barbara Stewart, CFA

Barbara Stewart is a chartered financial analyst (CFA) with 30 years of investment industry experience; five years as a foreign currency trader, more than two decades as a portfolio manager for high net worth entrepreneurs, and during the past six years, as an interview-driven researcher for multiple global financial institutions. She is a keynote speaker for CFA societies, banks, stock exchanges, and industry conferences globally, and she is a columnist for CFA Institute, Canadian Family Offices, and Canadian Money Saver. She is on the Advisory Board for Kensington Capital Partners and also is the Ambassador for the Kensington Women’s Forum. Fourteen years ago, Stewart saw a need to challenge outdated financial industry stereotypes and share positive messages about women and money. Today, she is recognized worldwide as one of the leading researchers in women and finance. Rich Thinking® global research papers quote smart women and men of all ages, professions, and countries, and are released annually on International Women’s Day, 8 March. To find out more about her research, visit Barbara Stewart.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Get Physical: Body Language and Success”

  1. Excellent information. It must have been a difficult task to try and explain body language just in words rather than pictorially. ( some irony there as well!) Having long been an adviser and then moving into the teaching of advisers, I can certainly attest to anyone reading this post that recognizing body language is an absolutely invaluable tool.

    Communication is part verbal, part tone and part body language. Unbeknownst to lot’s of people, it is considered that the words we say(verbal) represent only 7% of the total message. Body language is considered to be a whopping 56%, whilst tone of voice is 37%.

    So it’s important to be able to ‘read’ what your clients are actually saying to you with their unspoken actions.

    Adviser ‘soft skills’ should rank equally with technical skills, and the art of reading body language is certainly an important part.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Barbara Stewart says:

      Thanks Adrian – I appreciate your comments and glad you enjoyed!

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