Your Personal Presence: Appearances Matter

It’s often the little things that count. Like it or not, first impressions matter. Our human brains size up people in less than 250 milliseconds. While character and communication skills are key, you won’t influence the people you wish to if your appearance telegraphs that you’re clueless.

Whether you’re an executive up for promotion, an employee seeking more responsibilities, or a parent involved in community or team activities, how you look will open doors and put you in play.

There’s a connection between looking good and feeling capable. When we look our best, we feel confident. And research shows there’s also a big link between our appearance and whether we are perceived as competent or not.

People who look attractive and well-groomed are perceived by others as more capable, likable, and even more trustworthy.

It’s not surprising, however, that colleagues, mentors, and even your best friends are reluctant to give feedback on how you should improve your wardrobe, hair, and grooming. Advice on appearances is difficult for anyone to give, even with best interests at heart. At work, it’s even more perilous to critique appearances, especially to women and minorities.

Surveys can offer some guidelines as to what senior leaders expect. Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation surveyed 268 executives and interviewed 4,000 college-educated adults on executive presence, including appearance.

According to senior leaders, there are five aspects comprising good appearance:

  1. 1. Being polished and groomed
  2. 2. Being physically attractive, fit, slim
  3. 3. Simple, stylish clothes that position you for your next job
  4. 4. Being tall
  5. 5. Being youthful and vigorous

Polish and Grooming

More than a third of surveyed executives considered polish and grooming the most vital to one’s personal presence, ahead of physical attractiveness (less than a fifth). It’s not your body type, height, or weight that matters most. It’s what you do with what you’ve got.

Anyone can improve his or her looks through better grooming habits. While dress standards vary, good grooming signals discipline, competency, good health, and that you care.

In a study at Harvard Medical School, judgments about a woman’s competence, likeability, and trustworthiness were affected by how much makeup she wore. The more makeup worn, the higher the women were rated.

When you make an effort to look polished, you signal to others that you see them as worth your time and investment. It telegraphs that you take your work seriously. Senior leaders say that failure to come through on the grooming front signals either poor judgment or lack of discipline.

Rules of Engagement

Achieving polish comes down to minimizing distractions from your skill sets, the message you’re trying to convey, and the changes you want to influence.

While the specifics of dress, makeup, hair, and grooming vary according to geographical and industry contexts, always make sure your appearance focuses the audience on your competencies rather than act as a potential distraction.

Women need to avoid dressing in any way that draws attention to their sexuality, yet without appearing frumpy. Men need to be aware of group standards for their gender – how formally or informally do others in their audience dress? Is a suit and tie the norm, or will a polo shirt and slacks suffice?

At the same time, each individual needs to be authentic and not just copy others. When you wear clothes that feel uncomfortable, it detracts from your internal confidence.

Attractiveness Counts

There’s a lot of research that proves that intrinsically attractive people have an easier time:

  • They get hired more often
  • They earn more (taller people earn $789 more per inch per year)
  • They fare better in justice court sentencing
  • Attractive candidates get more votes
  • Attractive students get more attention from teachers

The fact that beautiful people earn more can be attributed to three things:

  1. 1. They are more confident (in 20% of cases).
  2. 2. They are considered more competent by employers (although a wrong assumption in 30% of cases).
  3. 3. They have communication and social skills that enable them to interact well (in 50% of cases).

Image Matters

The good news is that polish and grooming can enhance your perceived attractiveness. It doesn’t take genetic re-engineering, or money, or plastic surgery. To be perceived taller, you can stand tall, walk tall, and sit tall by adjusting your posture and using larger gestures.

Carefully observe those you know who make the best of their appearance. Ask them what they do. What are their rules for choosing wardrobe or makeup? What are the taboos?

Good Packaging

When choosing a product in a store, our eyes are drawn to packaging that’s well-designed yet useful in that it tells us what to expect. Our exterior selves are no different, albeit more complex. Think about the image you want to project and start with the end in mind.

In addition to wardrobe, consider all the accessories that complete the picture: your notebook, writing instruments, briefcases. When you open up your carrying case, is it messy and unorganized? Does it take too long for you to find a necessary file?

Even your desk and workspace fill out the impression you make on others. If you have a meeting at work, how do others see you based on your visible organizational skills? What do your personal items communicate? Personal presence extends to your surroundings, even your car if you have to give someone a ride.

“The “little” things can make a big difference in landing a job, getting a promotion, winning a contract, or leading an organization through change.”
– Dianna Booher, Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader

When was the last time you updated your “look”? You’d be surprised how much it influences how you are perceived. You can make a better first and lasting impression, and it all starts with appearance.