Body Language in Sales: How to Sell Nonverbally

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Way of the Wolf" by Jordan Belfort. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What role does body language play in sales? How can focusing on your gestures, eye contact, stance, etc. help you close more deals?

In sales, body language is a crucial element. At least half of the communication that happens during a sale is nonverbal, so instead of hoping that you’re making a good impression, you should practice effective forms of nonverbal communication.

Here’s how to increase sales using body language.

Techniques for Using Body Language

Body language accounts for at least half of the 90% of communication that’s nonverbal, according to Belfort. As noted earlier, it works hand in hand with tone (the other half) in subconsciously increasing a prospect’s certainty. 

Effective sales body language won’t necessarily close the deal, but ineffective body language can ruin the possibility of a deal—because it prevents you from developing rapport or increasing a prospect’s certainty.

This section discusses body language techniques, but first let’s clarify the term. Body language encompasses:

  • Appearance (clothing, hair, jewelry, grooming, cologne, and so on) 
  • Facial expressions, eye contact, and gestures such as your handshake
  • The way you move, including stance and positioning
  • The way you use time and space

As noted in the discussion of first impressions, people determine in seconds whether you’re someone they want to do business with. Your body language—the way you package and present yourself—is a key influence. Think about someone who instantly “rubbed you the wrong way”—it’s likely that something in the way they looked or moved unconsciously offended you.

The rest of this section discusses ways to make body language work for rather than against you.

Appearance

The first thing people notice about you is your appearance, beginning with dress and grooming; you want to come across as professional and therefore credible.

Belfort recommends that salespeople (both men and women) wear suits, minimize cologne or perfume, and carry a leather briefcase to convey confidence, care, and quality. For men, he advises that any beard or mustache be close-cropped (unless facial hair is part of the culture) so you don’t come across as careless or sloppy; women should avoid extreme hairstyles or too much jewelry as these are distracting.

Research: Why You Should Dress for Success

Research shows that people who dress well are more confident, feel more powerful, and are more focused. In studies, people who dressed better made fewer mistakes, did better at abstract thinking, and negotiated better deals than those who dressed casually. Defining professional dress is somewhat subjective and depends on circumstances. People prefer that others’ clothing match their expectations—for example, doctors should wear scrubs, plumbers should wear appropriate uniforms, and business people should wear suits. Most important from a selling perspective, people perceive those who dress professionally as leaders and seek support from them more often.

Eye Contact and Active Listening

Another key aspect of body language is eye contact. Make eye contact to show interest, but not to the point of seeming aggressive or dominating. Belfort contends you should make eye contact 72% of the time—if it’s less, people won’t trust you.

(Shortform note: Some communication experts recommend the 50/70 rule: Maintain eye contact 50% of the time while speaking and 70% while listening. Further, only maintain eye contact for four or five seconds at a time, then look to the side slowly, before making eye contact again—if you do this too fast, you’ll look shifty or nervous.)

The point of eye contact is to project confidence and strong engagement, and to be and show that you’re a good listener. Eye contact is an important element of active listening.

The Two Parts of Active Listening

Active listening is generally defined as: Giving your full attention to the speaker—so that you concentrate on, understand, respond, and remember what the speaker saysShowing that you’re listening through verbal cues and body language such as eye contact and nodding Belfort’s sales system focuses primarily on the second part: creating the appearance of listening. He defines active listening as simply showing that you’re paying attention by using body language and tonality. However, in 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes that fully engaging in active listening has many benefits, including learning how another person thinks, helping them think, learning from their experiences, and developing a trusting relationship.

Stance and Positioning

The next key aspects of body language are how you use space and movement. First, be aware of others’ personal space and don’t violate it. Different cultures have different standards for how closely you should approach or stand near someone, so know and respect the preferences of the culture or country you’re operating in. Belfort says Westerners prefer a space buffer of two-and-a-half to three feet, while Asians are comfortable less than a foot from another person.

(Shortform note: Other sources claim that Americans like a 12- to 15-inch buffer, while Asians prefer more than that and Middle Eastern cultures less. A 2017 Washington Post article graphically depicts research also showing that Asians prefer more personal space than Americans do.)

As part of spatial awareness, pay attention to your stance and positioning. Belfort contends that men and women prefer different stances, depending on whether they’re dealing with someone of the same or opposite sex. Two people of the same sex are more comfortable and relaxed when standing or sitting at an angle rather than directly in front of each other. For men in particular, facing each other directly promotes a sense of competition and conflict; the same is somewhat true for women.

In contrast, according to Belfort, a man selling to a woman should stand in front of her and keep his hands visible to her. Similarly, a woman seeking to influence a man should stand facing him.

(Shortform note: Other writers agree that standing at an angle to someone comes across as more comfortable or less confrontational for many people; and also that men prefer an angle to a face-to-face stance unless they’re trying to express dominance.

Belfort doesn’t address posture—however, Jordan Peterson argues in 12 Rules for Life that your posture reflects your self-respect and affects others’ respect for you. If you stand straight with your shoulders back, people will treat you as capable, and you’ll act with greater confidence.)

Gestures

From a Western standpoint, a handshake is one of the most important gestures in creating an impression. There are different types of handshakes, ranging from too firm to too limp. Those at either end of the spectrum leave a poor impression.

Handshakes that are too hard or last too long come across as attempts to intimidate or dominate. Counterintuitively, Belfort notes that a limp handshake also can be a power play, conveying that the person doesn’t care how they come across.

He says a handshake should be “neutral,” neither too hard nor too soft. You should meet the other person’s hand straight on, not from above or below, and use the same amount of pressure as they do. This approach signals cooperation, indicating you’re a good person to do business with—according to Belfort, people want to do business with others who are like them or with whom they can relate. Shaking hands this way is part of an overall rapport building technique called matching, which is a means of relating to someone on their level. We’ll discuss matching in the next section.

(Shortform note: Some etiquette writers recommend that you limit a handshake to two-to-five seconds. Former President Trump’s handshake technique of gripping the other person’s hand tightly and yanking them toward him was dissected in the media as a power play. Other world leaders reportedly practiced how to counter it.)

Another common gesture is crossing your arms, which Belfort says may indicate that you’re closed to new ideas. Some behavioral experts say it makes you seem anxious, defensive, or insecure. In any case, as the seller, you want to appear as relaxed and open to the client as possible, so it’s usually better to avoid crossed arms.

Related Techniques: Matching, Pacing, Leading

Belfort recommends a technique called matching for building rapport and influence with body language. It works best as part of active listening, where you’re closely observing the other person. The technique consists of using body language to match the prospect’s body language, for instance her body position, blinking rate, and breathing. If you’re talking on the phone rather than in person, you would match her tonality and rate of speech.

Belfort says matching is different from mirroring, which is doing the exact same thing as the other person—for example, scratching your head—while they’re doing it. Matching is a little more subtle: You copy their gestures casually and slowly with a lag of five to 10 seconds and vary them a little. (Shortform note: Studies of mirroring, also called the chameleon effect, show that it causes others to like and trust you more.) 

Matching and mirroring are both two-way interactions. You can move from matching a person’s behavior yourself to pacing and leading them to adopt (match) your position—for example, to get someone to uncross their arms, fold yours similarly, then pace and lead them by slowly adopting an open, relaxed arm position. It works because people unconsciously copy others.

You’ll not only create rapport, but also begin moving their emotional state from negative to positive and from uncertainty to greater certainty. 

(Shortform note: Pacing and leading are neuro-linguistic programming techniques advocated by some marketers. We’ll discuss the general concept of neuro-linguistic programming in the final chapter.)

Ways to Use Matching, Pacing, and Leading

Win Bigly author Scott Adams, who writes about persuasion, suggests several matching, pacing, and leading scenarios:

Sales: Pace a potential customer verbally by showing you have similar interests and values; also discuss how they’re like your other clients. Then explain why your product or service makes logical sense for people sharing these interests.

Hiring situations: Build familiarity with a hiring manager by matching their behavior (posture, speaking, and email style). Then verbally paint a picture (future pacing) that helps them visualize you working for them—for example, your contacts can get them better prices—prompting them to think beyond the hiring decision.

Negotiation: Besides matching the other party’s body language, match their argument by agreeing with it: “That’s a very reasonable approach…but I wonder if it covers all the bases—for instance…”
Body Language in Sales: How to Sell Nonverbally

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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