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How Communication Is Likely To Be Interpreted If Visual, Vocal, And Verbal Cues Don’t Match

You can provide excellent guidance about how clients should think long term during a crisis, but if your body language, words, and voice tone aren’t in sync, clients may assume you’re not fully confident in the advice you’re providing.

Source: How to Practice Active Listening, Duke Today, 6/18/19

The Great Recession. Brexit. A tumultuous presidential election year. There are always reasons for clients to be concerned about investing. As this piece was written, the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting not just lives but also the financial markets. While much is unknown at this moment, there is one thing we can be fairly sure of: it’s not the last crisis we’ll ever face.

In times of crisis, successful advisors speak to their clients more frequently—to reassure them, to help them keep a long-term perspective, and to help dissuade them from making any regrettable investment decisions. But as the adage goes, “It’s not just what you say—it’s how you say it.” You may have truly great insights that provide clients perspective and encourage patience, but here’s the challenge: If you aren’t able to deliver that information with confidence, clients might not be convinced enough to heed your recommendations.


What we’ll cover:

  • It’s not just what you say—it’s how you say it
  • Tips for communicating with confidence
  • Knowing what to say


First, It’s Not just What You Say—It’s How You Say It

Perhaps you’ve heard the rule of thumb that “93% of all communication is nonverbal.” While that’s an oversimplification of the research from which the statistic’s derived, it’s still useful to understand the basic premise in a crisis situation.1 Here’s the gist: Sometimes when we communicate with another person, we send mixed messages. For example, imagine that you’re mad about something. If someone were to ask what’s wrong and you said, “nothing,” but you did so with an angry tone, crossed arms, and clenched teeth, you’d be sending a mixed message.

So how can someone tell which part of a mixed message is accurate? When it seems the messages we send through our body language, tone of voice, and word selection don’t match, one is perceived as being most accurate.1 As the pie graph to the right shows, it’s our body language. That’s followed by our tone of voice; then, the actual words we use.

Let’s apply this to our current crisis. Imagine you said to a client, “I’m confident this recommendation is your best option.” If you nervously tap your fingers on the desk and your voice wavers while you utter this, it’s very possible your clients will assume you’re not fully confident in the advice you’re providing—or worse, that you’re not being truthful.

So our goal should be to communicate with congruence—that is, our words, tone of voice and body language should all send the same message. How can we ensure that’s the case? By being more aware and intentional about the messages we’re sending.


Second, Tips for Communicating With Confidence

At times like this, advisors and clients alike can feel anxious or upset. But many clients count on their advisors to comfort them and guide them through challenging times with poise. In a crisis, it’s not enough that our messages are merely congruent—they also need to be confident.

In each of the sections below, the column on the left shows things that could reflect a lack of confidence and therefore affect your clients’ confidence in you; the column on the right shows tips that can help you project more confidence. These can be used to communicate with confidence at any time, though they are especially helpful during a crisis.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to here, but don’t overthink it. The goal is simply to be more aware and intentional about the various messages you’re sending, so you can limit any potential miscommunication. Pick a few things from the lists that you think might be challenges for you currently and work on those first.


  1. General Tips

    Less Confident

    More Confident

    Being unsure what advice to give

    Taking time to build conviction about best advice

    Waiting for clients to call

    Being proactive with communication

    “Winging it” or scripting every word

    Listing bullets to cover most important points

    Running yourself (and your voice) ragged

    Blocking time for sleep and self-care

    Jumping directly from meeting to meeting

    Taking a moment to pause and get recentered

    Trusting clients will fully focus on your words

    Sharing a visual for them to view as you speak

    Being tentative on phone calls, since there’s no visual feedback to reassure you

    Glancing at a picture of friends or family while you’re speaking on the phone

  2. Your Words
    (via phone, in-person or virtual meetings)

    Less Confident

    More Confident

    Diving right into business

    Asking first about the person, their family, etc.

    Saying things like “I’m sure you’re scared…”

    Asking “How are you feeling about all this?”

    Talking in technical jargon, or; scripting every word

    Explaining concepts clearly and simply

    Using softening words such as maybe, just, I think

    Making declarative statements, when possible

    Asking “Does that make sense?”

    Asking “Am I explaining that clearly?”

    Rushing through talking points

    Repeating main points and recapping at the end

    Trying to end the meeting/call as soon as possible

    Leaving time for any questions<

  3. Your Voice
    (via phone, in-person or virtual meetings)

    Less Confident

    More Confident

    Tone = dismissive or condescending

    Tone = decisive and comforting

    Talking too fast

    Slowing down

    Using filler words such as "um" or "like"

    Adding pauses to allow information to sink in

    Speaking in a higher pitch due to nerves

    Speaking in the lower end of your natural range

    Talking too quietly

    Projecting your voice

    “Uptalking,” so statements sound like questions

    Ensuring statements don’t end on a higher pitch

    Having a hoarse, weak voice from overuse

    Being hydrated/using a cough drop between calls

  4. Your Body Language
    (via in-person or virtual meetings)

    Less Confident

    More Confident

    Keeping a desk or table between you and clients

    If possible, remove physical barriers

    Looking overly stressed or worried

    Appearing calm and smiling (when appropriate)

    Fidgeting in your seat

    Sitting up straight

    Hunching over or slouching

    Remaining relatively still

    Tapping the desk or repeatedly clicking a pen

    Keeping your hands “quiet” on the table

    Waving your hands excessively while speaking

    Gesturing smoothly with your palms upright

    Looking away often or distractedly

    Maintaining focus and eye contact

Third, Knowing What to Say

While this piece focused on “how to say it,” knowing what to say is also imperative. Our local advisor consultants are well versed on what pieces are available, and how to position them with clients. They can help you role play client conversations and share best practices, as well.

In times of crisis, effective communication is crucial. Use these tips to ensure that the messages you send—via your body language, tone of voice, and word selection—are congruent and confident. And one last tip for the road: Let’s make sure we’re all washing our hands!

About The Author
Ryan Sullivan Headshot
Ryan Sullivan, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®
Managing Director, Applied Insights

Ryan is responsible for engaging and educating financial professionals and their clients about current and emerging opportunities in the financial services marketplace. These range from areas such as retirement-income planning, investment planning, and charitable giving, to anticipating and preparing for long-term demographic and lifestyle changes. He also has extensive experience coaching professionals on public speaking and applied improvisation.

Next Steps

1 Download a PDF version of this article
2 Visit our Communicating to Connect landing page for more communication tips
3 Talk to your advisor consultant about helping clients maintain perspective in volatile times


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1Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game? Psychology Today, 9/30/11



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