Your Image, What Is It Saying About You?

My friend Diane Parente is a certified Image and Wardrobe Professional with over twenty years experience in all areas of image development and management. She is also co-author of Mastering Your Professional Image-Dressing to Enhance Your Credibility. Do not overlook your image as part of your overall communications strategy.  Enjoy these helpful insights from Diane:

Your Image, What Is It Saying About You?
by Diane Parente

As a professional, you can come in contact with hundreds of people every day — in meetings, at lunch, or traveling from place to place. Your image is talking even when you’re not. You and your business may have all the substance in the world, but if you don’t project a strong, professional image to go with it, people aren’t going to respond the way you want them to.

To back up your image, you also need a good product, extensive knowledge, and strong communications skills. Your image creates the expectation. Your substance confirms it.

Your public image represents who you are and what you do. It is a reflection of your private self image. If your self image needs an occasional boost, you can start by improving your public image. When you portray yourself to the world as confident and competent, you actually increase your self confidence and credibility. You achieve optimum results because people respond more positively.

Your ideal image should be so supportive of what you’re saying that people can look past you to your message. We have all run into people whose appearance and actions are so distracting that we can’t concentrate on what they are saying. Consider a man with a bad hairpiece or combing his hair over a bald spot. Does he realize how odd he looks? Or a woman in a very short skirt. Will she be able to sit and still look professional? We become so engrossed in our own thoughts that we fail to hear their words.

Four Minutes
Leonard Zunin, author of Contact: The First 4 Minutes, says, “Four minutes is the average time demonstrated to grab someone’s attention and establish credibility and rapport.” Many of us decide even sooner. When you’re making your way around the TV dial, how long do you pause at each channel to see if it engages you? In a world of quick sound bites and 30-second commercials, consumers can form opinions almost instantaneously. Your strong first impression is what gets you your four minutes.

Which Image?
Today, you have choices. That’s both a powerful plus and a potential trap. Gone are the days of conservative-clone outfits, dull but very safe. Now you can present the image that best projects you and your particular business. However, this new range of choices can be confusing, challenging, even frightening, and not without pitfalls. Should you go for the cutting edge of fashion? Or for the most conservative? Or something in between?

This depends on the culture of your industry, even within your industry. When I did a seminar for PG&E, you could tell which floor people worked on by how they dressed. “Business Casual” can be anything from a company-logo T- shirt and artfully torn jeans, to $1,200 silk separates. Do your homework.

Image Don’ts
An image enhancement seminar I conducted for the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco featured “Image Do’s and Don’ts,” modeled by their employees.

Whatever style you’re aiming for, there are always certain fundamentals:
Inappropriate style for the situation, too formal or too casual, can create a barrier to immediate communication. If you show up in a dark, structured suit and the client is wearing chinos and a T-shirt — or vice versa — you lose valuable time.

Ill-fitting clothing, no matter how expensive or stylish, will shoot you down. Men often wear clothes too small, women too large. Men buy clothes expecting them to last forever. Then they may gain or lose weight and what worked five years ago may not fit now. Some men end up with belts looped below the stomach, pants and sleeves too short, jacket pulling across the chest. Women forget to consider alterations as part of the purchase price of a garment. They buy a certain size and expect it to fit, but it almost never does. Skirt lengths can emphasize an unattractive part of the leg, pants call attention to full thighs, sleeves can extend over wrists, making hips look larger. The slimmer the sleeves, the slimmer the hips look.

Overpowering or clashing colors distract. Unless your job description includes “outrageous,” try to be less flamboyant than your client.

Too many accessories give your listener a “where do I look?” dilemma. Avoid oversized earrings and necklaces for women, earrings or too many rings on men, exotic shoes, and visible tattoos. Jaunty neckties may be fun and fashionable, but don’t upstage yourself, especially if you work in a job where people see you from the waist up.

Unpolished or worn out shoes announce that you don’t care.

Mixing Formal and Casual indicates you haven’t a clue. Don’t wear dress shoes with jeans.

Skirts high above the knee send an unintended and unprofessional message.

Bad grooming or any extreme grooming — odd hairstyles, too much makeup or cologne, oddly styled beards or mustaches — suggest that you are out of touch with how you look and act. Keep your hair in a current complimentary style, any length, but not dangling over your face. Men, please don’t comb your hair over the thin spot on top. Thin is OK, and shaved heads look terrific.

Bad teeth are a huge turnoff. People look at your mouth when you talk. Take care of your teeth.

Rumpled, worn, faded, or stained clothes suggest you’re not in control. Buy the best fabrics you can afford. Give them the surreptitious twist test when the salesperson isn’t looking. (Twist a tiny corner tightly, hold for five seconds, then let go and see how quickly and completely it springs back. If it’s wrinkled, don’t buy it.) Keep your wardrobe spotless, but don’t over- clean woolen garments. Their lifespan is usually 30 cleanings. Europeans believe that if fabric doesn’t touch the body, you can get by with cleaning it two or three times a year. You’re lucky to get a year out of anything washable that you wear once or twice a week.

Obvious underwear is a distracting no-no. Check for visible elastic lines under outer garments, or colored underwear showing through white pants or shirts.

Dangling threads, drooping slip hems, or sagging jacket linings are unforgivable. Runs, tears and missing buttons belong at the Hobo’s Ball.

Saving the Situation
What if you’ve done your homework, but find yourself facing someone dressed very differently than you are? If your client is very casual and you’re in a suit, you can still save the day. Take off your jacket, or at least unbutton it and push up the sleeves. As surreptitiously as possible, loosen your tie, open a shirt button or two, remove accessories, roll up shirt sleeves.

Talking Behind Your Back 
Your image can smooth your way or stop you cold. With great effort, you can usually overcome a bad first impression, but why waste the time? You are your best advertisement and how you present yourself can enhance your credibility. Start right, start strong, and your image will be your most powerful advocate.

Thank you Diane!

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