Remember that great TV commercial where a young woman is negotiating a very important deal over the phone? The others on her conference call hear the voice of a sharp, confident, professional. We, however, see her sitting at her computer, wearing pajamas and bunny slippers. The bunny slippers redefined casual attire for those of us who work at home. After all, if no one can see you, all you have to do is act the part, and no one will be the wiser.
You must do more than act the part; you must live the part. As a freelance writer, you are always “on,” even when you’re home alone, looking like something the cat dragged in. Until phone-a-vision becomes an everyday reality, you can wear anything you want and look as awful as you can look … right? So, what if you’re still in a robe or sweats? What difference does it make? Just because others can’t see you doesn’t mean they can’t hear your voice when you speak; and the voice, more than the words, speaks volumes. If you are dressed in a suit, you sound like you have it altogether, naturally. When you’re wearing a torn T-shirt and running shorts, you have to put some energy into how you come across.
Think of life as a marketing call. Wherever you are (in a client’s office, at the theater, or racing through the grocery store) and whatever you’re doing (selling a story, attending a conference, or hosting a dinner party), you are projecting an indelible image to those around you. It is far better to project the image you want than to have it created for you by default. Whether you are aware of it or not, everything you say and do, every way in which you present yourself to the world, and every mannerism or annoying habit you may have is creating an impression in the minds of others. Whether those impressions are accurate or completely skewed, to those people, they are true. To them, perception is reality.
“Everything counts” means just that. Pick up any book on image (Polishing Your Professional Image by yours truly is an oldie but goody), and you will read pretty much the same thing. The basic advice is, be aware of how you are coming across to others, which is not always easy because we see what we want to see, and fix those things you don’t like. How do you know how you’re coming across? Look in the mirror, listen to yourself in conversation, replay your voice mail message, look over your corporate identity materials; and, when all else fails, ask a few people you trust to tell you the truth.
Let me offer just a few things I’ve tried.
Become an observer of people.
I love to do this in airports and office buildings. Even a quick glance will create an instant, all-encompassing impression of someone’s general appearance, attractiveness, posture, clothing, grooming, and self-confidence. In only a moment, you have taken another person’s measure and either approved or dismissed him or her. If you don’t believe it, give it a try. You’ll be shocked at how quickly you form an opinion based on appearance only and how judgmental you are.
Turn the tables, and imagine that you are being observed in the same way.
What do others see and sense? Do you pass or fail the two-second scan? What would you think if you were outside yourself, observing you as you meet someone new, walk into a reception area, or work the room at a networking event?
Take a ruthless inventory of every aspect of your personal presentation.
- Appearance (wardrobe, hair, eye wear, accessories and jewelry, grooming, style)
- Physical traits (your voice in person and on the phone [just listen to any interview you have conducted on tape or call your voice mail from another phone], physical or verbal mannerisms, idiosyncrasies (usually hard to identify by yourself)
- Psychological traits (Are you upbeat, negative, self-deprecating, controlling, a know-it-all, full of yourself?)
- Conversational style (Do you talk more than listen, interrupt, interrogate, pontificate, or find yourself at a loss for words?)
- Professionalism (everything from your stationery and business cards to how promptly you return phone calls or follow through on commitments)
Let me share my personal definition of professional image. It is based on respect: respect for yourself and respect for others. Self-respect grows out of authenticity—being real, genuine, and completely natural. Respect for others implies appropriateness—behaving in a way that is suitable for a particular person, occasion, or place. In the best of all worlds, there is a perfect balance between authenticity and appropriatenessand thus, project exactly what you would like others to perceive.