It’s a tiny bit ironic that this post is appearing on a Friday, which is a day when sharply-dressed, professional-looking people suddenly become casual and appear in the office looking like they just rolled out of bed at camp.
Although I haven’t seen hard evidence, I firmly believe that how you look and dress can affect how you feel about yourself and therefore how you perform. But evidence certainly exists that shows how you look and dress can affect how others perceive your competence and credibility.
Your appearance actually works in the same way as credentials do, in that they form others’ impressions in advance of anything you do or say; people generally see you and begin making judgments about your credibility even before you open your mouth. Ideally, your credibility should be judged by the quality of your content and your communication skill, not your appearance or dress, but the reality is that your appearance does make a difference, sometimes so much so that it will determine whether you even get heard (or interviewed).
A professional appearance shows pride, authority, and respect for others. Without even saying a word, what you wear can have a significant effect on how others see you. In a study cited in Joe Navarro’s excellent book, Louder Than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence, experimenters had an associate “lose” his wallet where others could see it. When the associate was well dressed, people returned it 83% of the time. When poorly or casually dressed, they got their wallet back 48% of the time.
Remember, credibility is not something you have, it’s something that others give or withhold, depending on what you do, say, and how you look. So you can decide to “be yourself” and not care what others think, but as Navarro says, “If your attire says you don’t care, trust me, others won’t care, either.”
Appearance is like an effective slide: it should support your communication goals without calling undue attention to itself. That’s why it’s a good idea to dress up or down to your audience’s expectations.
The way you sound also affects your credibility. Part of professional look and feel is how you sound. Avoid verbal typos, such as using words like “irregardless”, or mispronouncing words that you’ve picked up only through reading. If you’re not sure about your wording, ask others to point them out to you. I also note an increasing tendency to use profanity; Guy Kawasaki tells us in one of his books that it makes you more influential. I think he’s full of—stuff.
I began with appearance and sound because they are the most immediately apparent to someone else, but probably the most important factor in maintaining a credible look and feel over time is your professional demeanor. Are you always outwardly in control of your emotions and actions? Losing your temper, appearing frazzled all the time, or bringing your bad mood into the office can be a serious drain on your credibility.
So, now that you’ve read this, get on with your Friday. But tuck your shirt in first.