Practical analysis for investment professionals
11 September 2018

Let‘s Get Physical 2: Body Language and Physical Fixes

Financial advisers care about body language and so do clients and potential clients.

Indeed, my interview with nonverbal communication expert Mark Bowden earlier this year was the most popular article I’ve written in my more than two years as a contributor to Enterprising Investor. So I figured it was time for a follow-up.

As a global authority and author on nonverbal communication, Bowden embraces a simple premise: We can use our body language to distinguish ourselves, earn trust, and build credibility whenever we communicate with our clients.

In our previous talk, we explored how our body language can demonstrate our trustworthiness or lack thereof.

This time, I wanted to focus on something else.

How to Repair Your Body Language

Most of us know a little about body language already. We know there are certain things we’re not supposed to do. But what do we do when we are on stage or in a boardroom and commit one of these nonverbal faux pas?

Last interview, Bowden warned us not to touch our faces or cover our mouths while talking, for example, because it suggests that we may be being untruthful or don’t believe what we’re saying. So if we catch ourselves making one of these mistakes, is there anyway we can recover?

“No,” Bowden says. “Don’t do it again, but this isn’t the biggest body language gaffe. Mistakes happen, and the most important thing is to control your internal mindset. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed. The audience will pick up on that. Just think positively about sending good signals, and don’t beat yourself up about a small mistake.”

I asked Bowden about a miscue I used to make all the time. I’d be doing Q&As with rooms full of people and I would stand with my arms crossed. This sends a nonverbal signal that I am closed off to the questioner, that my mind is on something else, and that their question or comment is not important to me. We open up our bodies to things of value. But what do we do when we recognize we haven’t been demonstrating that receptiveness?

“Switch to your open position: arms out at navel height with open palms,” Bowden says. “Look directly at your questioner, since direct eye contact is always a good repair technique. We need to cultivate the body language of openness in order to foster a feeling of trustworthiness.”

And don’t ease into the transition. The sooner the shift is made, the better.

“Do it right away!” Bowden says. “Body language is interpreted by the very deepest parts of the human brain. This part of our brains doesn’t work on nuance or subtlety. It looks for stark differences. In order to ‘re-judge’ you, the brains of your audience need to recognize a bold shift.”

And, of course, certain mistakes can’t be corrected.

In one company meeting I attended, a senior executive yawned widely while on stage during another executive’s presentation. He then fell asleep a few minutes later. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when he woke back up, he picked his nose.

There’s no comeback from such nightmare scenarios. “Sometimes the only solution is not to make the mistake in the first place!” Bowden says.

Other Nonverbal Cues

Body language is only one way we can send physical messages that can appeal to or turn off clients.

Many advisers spend considerable time and money on their personal grooming and dressing for success. And that’s all great. It’s important that we look our best and invest in our appearance. We know not to go into an important presentation with a big stain on our shirt. But do we pay as much attention to our accessories? By neglecting them, could we be sending the wrong message about ourselves?

In my case, my laptop doesn’t always reflect well on me. As Bowden and I spoke, I glanced down and realized my MacBook looked rather unappealing. I recalled a headline I had seen but had yet to act on: “How to Clean Your Filthy, Disgusting Laptop.”

So how would Bowden recommend I conduct damage control if I noticed my laptop or mobile device looked less-than-presentable while meeting with a client?

He said to call out the assumption we think our client might be making. Say something along the lines of, “Oh, sorry my screen is so dirty — I haven’t had the chance to wipe it as I’ve been traveling so much.” This makes the client more likely to shift their thinking, Bowden says: “I see why her screen isn’t so pristine. It is because she is in demand and busy travelling! It isn’t because she is lazy, disorganized, and living in some kind of hovel.”

The nuances of body language and physical communication are complex, but the solutions to the associated dilemmas and miscues are decidedly the opposite.

In the case of my dirty laptop, I should make sure it and my other devices are clean before meeting with clients and always carry hand sanitizer and a soft cotton cloth for when they’re not.

The point is how we display our tools and accessories is representative of how we make choices and is an opportunity to advance our brand. With that in mind, Bowden recommends several simple tips:

  • Always use the highest-quality paper stock for proposal and marketing documents. The medium influences how the message is received. So low-quality paper may diminish the value of the content and a client’s feel for our expertise.
  • Make sure laptop, tablet, and smartphone screens aren’t cluttered with icons. Otherwise it may suggest we are disorganized or untidy.
  • Be deliberate when taking out mobile and electronic devices. Make sure the cover is appealing and clean and that we unveil them slowly, showing that we value them. How we handle our tools can help reflect the quality of our investment advice to clients.

Physical Space

Just like the tools we use, the physical space we inhabit can also be a critical cue for clients. What does our office décor signal about us? We’ve all seen corporate logos and branded artwork that don’t inspire or say anything in particular. But if we display our professional credentials, our diplomas, and certificates on our walls, we reinforce our credibility, training, and ethics.

How do the photographs and artwork in our office speak to who we are? If we display a large picture of our family, for example, we might increase our appeal to family-oriented clients. We demonstrate that we have responsibilities just like they do and have made similar choices as to our priorities in life. Pictures of us hiking, kayaking, or biking could also resonate with particular clients. And while there is a marketing component to these choices, they are also informational, giving clients a window into our lives, showing them who we are and hopefully why they should invest with us.

Bowden’s final piece of advice is that we need to be strategic about all aspects of our environment — whether we are setting ourselves up for success or repairing a tricky situation.

People sometimes worry about “putting on body language,” that by focusing too much on it, they may come across as fake, contrived, or inauthentic. Yet most of us don’t think twice about wearing makeup, coloring our hair, or putting on our favorite shirt or tie.

Why not choose specific behavior and nonverbal communications to win ourselves an advantage?

If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe to the Enterprising Investor.


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/ Dave Kirwan

About the Author(s)
Barbara Stewart, CFA

Barbara Stewart, CFA, is a researcher and author on the issue of women and finance. She released the eighth installment of her “Rich Thinking” series of monographs on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018. Previously, Stewart worked as a partner and portfolio manager with Cumberland Private Wealth Management. Stewart is a frequent interview guest on TV, radio, and print, both financial and general interest, as well as a former columnist for Postmedia newspapers in Canada. All of Stewart’s research is available on Barbara Stewart.

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