Did your mother pick out your clothes? No? What you’re wearing is your choice.
It takes three seconds to judge someone based on dress and physical appearance.
I’m not saying this is fair, it’s just how it is. Make those first few seconds appealing or at least don’t detract from your message.
How do you want to present yourself to the world? The clothes part, that’s the easy part. There is no excuse for dressing inappropriately. And it doesn’t have to break the bank. The average American spends 4% of their annual income on clothes.
I was in a thrift shop looking for an argyle sweater vest (for a golf commercial). I asked an employee if she had seen any. She said she wasn’t familiar with that brand. That brand? Argyle is a pattern, a print.
She said, “I wear what fits, and what I can afford.” I was at a thrift store. I get compliments every day on my clothes. Your clothes need not be expensive to be professional. You just need to know what to look for.
I won’t make many rules about what you should or shouldn’t wear, I will give you three. Neat. Clean. Modest.
Neat and Clean
Take good care of your clothes. Wash according to the directions on the tag. Store properly. Don’t wear wrinkled clothes.
Be cautious when you eat and drink. Coffee or tea can ruin an outfit. I know. I once wore a white dress to meet a client then ordered red tea. I’m a klutz. I also carry Shout wipes.
Modest means different things to different people in different places. What do you want people to focus on, your clothes or your message?
I know what I want people to focus on when I’m giving a presentation. My information, not my legs.
Modest means respecting your audience. Are you speaking to an international audience? Consider the expectations of their cultures. If you’re unsure, err on the side of being over-dressed and overly-conservative.
Appropriate for the Environment
In the course of the day I might be traveling, working indoors, speaking, volunteering outside, working out at the local rec center, and lounging in my living room. Appropriate means different things in each of these places. I’d look out of place wearing a skirt to the gym or working outside without a coat in December in Wisconsin.
My husband installs flooring for a living. His “appropriate for the environment” means work shoes, work jeans, and a tee shirt or sweatshirt. His boss might dictate his shirts not advertise beer or have inappropriate sayings that could offend homeowners. Even in this environment a level of neat and clean is expected. Clothes with holes gets tossed.
Brand Yourself with Clothes
Some choose to create a “uniform” for themselves. This makes it easy to always look put together without staring in your closet for minutes on end each morning.
I know a public speaker who always wears the same color shirt when she speaks. It’s the same color in her headshot. It makes her easily identifiable, even at large conferences.
I wear New York and Company’s sheath dresses almost exclusively while I speak. They are an easy way for me to feel professional. Cool weather? Add a cardigan. I also like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein’s sheath dresses.
Not sure where to start? First, eliminate anything in your closet that doesn’t fit or doesn’t make you feel good. What does make you feel good? What makes you feel professional? Stick to that.
Gentleman, here’s a great resource: Real Men, Real Style
Enhance your Body Language
Professionalism starts with our attitude about people and our respect for our message. Common body language issues may cause us to appear indifferent, uncaring, without purpose, or power.
The placement of our arms and hands should be conscious. I’m often told by those who habitually cross their arms that they do so simply because it’s comfortable. Is your comfort worth displaying a disagreeing, protective, closed posture?
Avoid hands on hips. This can be seen as condescending, parental, and overbearing. Hands crossed in front (fig leaf) is akin to feeling weak, timid, needing protection. Hands joined behind your back is a prideful pose. Hands in pockets = nervousness. This can result in jingling change or keys, making it even more obvious you don’t know what to do with your hands!
Emotions come through our hands. A clenched fist shows anger. Hands clasped show pleading. A pointed finger is rude, accusatory, and uncomfortable. Try gesturing with an open hand instead. Palms up are inviting.
Keep your hands relaxed at your sides unless you are purposefully gesturing. Avoid leaning to one side, aimless pacing, and rocking back and forth. Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Chest out. Feet forward, hip distance apart.
Control your Face
Are your moods written on your face? Be aware of what you’re saying with your expressions. Arched eyebrows indicate surprise or questioning. Frowns and scowls are seen as moody, disapproving or concerned. Have a scowl as your “resting face?” Consciously relax your facial muscles.
A grimace occurs naturally when you are fearful, in pain or anxious. Smile when you are happy, pleased with the situation or circumstance. Don’t stare; in most cultures this is rude.
Use your Voice Well
Speak clearly. Enunciate. Don’t cut off word endings. In some regions speakers remove the “g” on words ending in “ing.”
Use correct pronunciation. Consider installing a dictionary app on your mobile device. If you’re unsure of pronunciation, listen to the word. Say it along with the app.
Record yourself speaking. Or for a more natural pattern of speech, have someone else record you when you are unaware.
Listen for word whiskers, ums, and ahs, or filler words such as “like.” In this area of Wisconsin, I hear a lot of “and that” and “ain so” (which I think is a shrunken form of ain’t it so), and “you know what I mean?”
These kinds of fillers make you sound less intelligent. Eliminate superfluous words and phrases.
Fluency of speech comes from careful forethought. First you think the words. Then you speak the words.
Even in casual conversation or work meetings, we can plan ahead what we will say. Consider your content, design, and delivery. (Watch for a future blog on the three components to an attention keeping presentation.)
Pausing is essential. Slowing down reduces our reliance on filler words.
If we run our words together we won’t be understood. If we don’t take a rest in between no one else will get a chance to speak.
Pausing gives time for our words to sink in. There are three well-known learning types: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. The fourth type is intellectual. Intellectuals need time to process information. Slowing down will allow them to absorb your message.
Professional presence is a combination of attitude, appearance, and delivery of your message. For additional tips I’d highly recommend Presence by Amy Cuddy and What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro.