person raising eyebrow in a meeting at the office
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Have you ever been able to tell someone is mad at you before they’ve even said a word? That’s because some of our communication is nonverbal, meaning our body language can reveal as many clues about our true intentions as the words we’re saying. For example, crossed arms are a naturally defensive position, signaling that we feel stressed, anxious, insecure, or frustrated, or like we need to protect our vital organs.

You can learn a lot by observing their nonverbal signals. But as powerful as body language can be, sometimes—most of the time—there’s something that’ll override even the strongest cues.

Budget.

You’ve heard of it, right? It’s the dreamcrusher that makes a cameo in your life anytime you’re about to do something awesome.

Imagine you’re pitching your proposal, portfolio, or company’s product to your dream client. You’re finally in the room and you’re giving the presentation of a lifetime. As you talk, you’re applying everything you know about body language in an attempt to decipher whether they like your concept. And all signs are pointing to yes—but then you still get a no. Why?

Let’s dig into how you can read common four body language signs, what they mean according to science, and how to interpret them when your client has a tight budget and has to hire whoever will work for cheapest.

1. They Play With the Buttons on Their Jackets

They’re buttoning and unbuttoning. Button. Unbutton. Button. Unbutton. This is a displacement activity, usually indicating that someone is nervous. The anxious energy is often channeled into a meaningless physical activity that’s visible to an observer.


In an Ideal World

You’ve made them nervous because they love your work and you’re in the power position. They can’t do this without you and you’ll be compensated generously for your hard work and talent. You nailed it!

In the Real World

The client loves your work but was given the tiniest budget of all time. The company’s barely afloat and aesthetics are the first thing to go. They want to hire you, but they know they can’t afford you and have to go with some guy who’ll do it for pennies. Button up your briefcase and head home because this sale is not happening!

2. They Raise Their Eyebrows

According to Patty Wood, body language expert and author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language, people open their eyes when they like what they see. It’s a subconscious indication that they want to see more of it.


In an Ideal World

The client took one look at your mock-ups and those eyebrows shot right up to the tippy tops of their foreheads. They’re loving this work and think you’re a total genius. Start planning that celebration dinner!

In the Real World

The client’s raising their brows because they’re startled by how much better your work is than what the artist they’re going to choose showed them. They want to see more of what you have to offer, but it’s almost too painful to bear. After all, they were only given the illusion of choice. A simple glance at your price list would’ve been enough to know you weren’t getting the job. At this point it’s torture to see what they can’t afford and they’d be better off averting their eyes completely.

3. They Steeple Their Fingers

Steepling is when a person presses the tips of their fingers together with palms facing (but not touching) each other in front of their torso to make their hands look like a steeple. This move is the universal sign of confidence and can be used to get the point across that you feel strongly about what you’re saying.


In an Ideal World

They’re steepling because they couldn’t be any more confident that you’re the right choice.

In the Real World

They’re steepling because they couldn’t be any more confident that you’re the right choice. But they also couldn’t be more confident that they can’t afford you. They’re inspired by your direction and can’t wait to suggest it to someone who’ll run with it for cheaper. Looks like the next steeple you’ll be seeing is the one on the church where you’ll pray that you’ll make rent this month.

4. Their Feet Are Pointed Toward You

The feet are often the best indicators of someone’s intentions because people often focus so much on the face they forget to manipulate their legs and feet when trying to be deceptive. Our feet point to where we want to go because they’re the ones responsible for getting us there.


In an Ideal World

During your whole presentation, their feet were pointed toward you because they loved your work. You’re the direction they want to go in! You’re so happy your own feet could do a jig!

In the Real World

Their feet were pointing toward you, but now that it’s time to let you down slowly, those toes are turning to the door. They’d rather be anywhere but here. They make a last ditch effort and promise exposure, but you both know it’s not enough. Maybe you should respond with some body language of your own by pointing your feet towards a bottomless abyss that you can go scream into.

OK, you probably noticed that all the real-world examples are pretty much the same. And that’s because as much as a client may recognize your talent and want to work with you—they often can’t, because they’re walking into that room with their own restrictions.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents would say, “You can order anything on the menu”—your eyes jumped to the surf ‘n’ turf—“…as long as it’s under $10.”

It sucks for people on both ends, but it’s important to remember that getting a “no” doesn’t mean your product is bad or your presentation fell flat. Even if you get that dreaded “no,” there are probably signs your prospective client wishes that wasn’t the case. And while that won’t make up for not getting the contract signed, it should remind you that you are good at what you do and you should keep at it.

Oh, and if you’re crossing your arms as you read this, I know that you’re really just trying to comfort yourself.