It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

By Jeff Thorsteinson | January 5, 2007 | Last updated on January 5, 2007
5 min read

(January 2007) How much of each day do you spend in front of people? If you’re like most advisors, I’ll bet it’s upwards of 50%. Whether you’re in a meeting with clients, top prospects, centres of influence, or simply chatting with your assistant, your success will depend on what you say.

Or does it? While speech is perhaps the most obvious way of communicating, there’s a lot more to language than words. In fact, a study back in 1983 by linguistics professors V. Fromkin and J. Rodman found that up to 90% of the meaning of a message is transmitted non-verbally.

Think about that for a moment. Given the importance of communication in this business, it makes sense to think about how you’re communicating verbally as well as non-verbally. Utilized properly, non-verbal communication can be an incredibly powerful tool in your effort to educate, motivate, and perhaps even endear people to you.

Additionally, when you are listening to others in your meetings and conversations, paying attention to their non-verbal communication can often unlock secrets or issues and may prompt you to probe deeper.

With that in mind, I’ve listed a number of non-verbal communication cues and some ideas for using them to make the most of your interactions with clients, prospects, centres of influence and your team.

Gestures and expressions Unless you’re speaking on the phone, your body is as much a part of the conversation as the words you use. A conversation without movement will leave your client thinking of you as stiff, inflexible, and distant. On the other hand, hurried, frenetic movement sends a message that you are disorganized, cluttered, unfocused, and reactive.

Hand gestures are used to emphasize or illustrate the important parts of your conversation. When put to use in a meeting, hand gestures make it clear to clients that you have passion and an emotional attachment to the idea you are communicating.

Other gestures you may wish to consider:

head nodding: regulates and maintains the flow of verbal communication in meetings and conversations.

postural changes: shifts to become more comfortable or perform a physical function such as a demonstration.

facial expressions: use of emotions to convey a feeling.

Appearance You are what you wear. Rightly or wrongly, how you groom and dress yourself sends an important message about how much you care about yourself and your clients. Does that mean you need to go out and buy a Brioni suit or Gucci shoes every year? Probably not. But remember this: you are the product. You need to consider how your constituents view you.

Touching A high-five. A pat on the back. Walking arm in arm down the hall. A solid handshake. All of these demonstrate the “common language” of touch. And they all have different uses and meanings. Often such gestures reinforce the strength of a relationship — something you need to remind your clients of from time to time.

While it’s not always appropriate to reach over your desk and pat the client on the back in the middle of a business meeting, a firm and deliberate handshake on the way into the office can leave a very positive impression.

Scent You may not think about it much, but scent actually plays a large role in business communication. In his best-selling book Why we Buy, Paco Underhill describes large retail chains and real estate advisors as leaders in the use of scent and aroma to improve the sales experience. There is a lesson here for financial advisors as well. Whether you agree or not, it is a certain fact that scents make customers feel comfortable, secure and happy — why not use scent and aroma to your advantage?

At the very least, consider what scents you are imposing on people. Your breath, for example. You often have annual review with clients on the same side of the table so that you can illustrate how you’ve achieved for them throughout the last year. Need I say more? On a similar note, a strong-smelling cologne or perfume is not always going to be appreciated.

To improve the overall office experience, a bowl of fresh oranges, flowers, or even a seasonal potpourri in the foyer or waiting area of your office can set an important tone for the business to follow.

Eyes As the saying goes, eyes are the windows to the soul. Let’s not forget the eyebrows — which often support and emphasize what the eyes are saying.

Make sure your eyes do not betray your speech, or say the wrong things about your business. When you speak to clients, make sure your eyes are focused on whoever you’re speaking to. The best policy is to keep everything above-board, 100% honest and true to what you believe. Your eyes will do the rest.

Your eyes demonstrate that you recognize more than one person in a room. For example, when in a meeting with a couple, shifting your gaze from time to time while you’re speaking ensures that both people are included in the conversation. When clients are speaking to you, make sure you look at them. These little details communicate confidence and sincerity, while demonstrating to clients that you understand that you are listening to every word they say.

Objects and office décor Inanimate objects communicate too. A framed family photo sitting on your desk speaks volumes to a client. A clear desk says one thing. A random stack of paperwork says something very different.

Think about the objects and the décor in your office. What feelings do they evoke? What kind of messages do they send to a client? Ultimately, you’ll want your office to communicate distinction and quality when clients come to visit you.

Every meeting you have with a client is more than just a dialogue — it’s an experience. And while what you say is of critical importance, how you say it is just as important. The level of care you demonstrate with the non-verbal portions of that experience will “speak” volumes about what clients can expect when they work with you.

Jeff Thorsteinson is the creator of the YouFoundation, an organization that has helped investment advisors build world-class practices through innovative concepts, tools, and systems since 1993. With over 3,500 investment advisor marketing projects and business cases behind him, Jeff has become a well-respected speaker in the industry and over the last three years has delivered his practice-building programs to thousands of financial advisors throughout Canada. YouFoundation has recently launched its Cross-Canada Going UpMarket tour. For more information please visit

Contact or 1 800-223-9332, ext. 1, for more information about YouFoundation, or visit the website at


Jeff Thorsteinson