You spend lots of time, money and energy to create an effective brand for your company, carefully marketing and packaging your products and services for maximum impact and sales. Shouldn’t you pay as much attention to the way YOU are branded?
Fair or not, your bottom line is either helped or hurt by the way you dress, act and come across to others — the elements that combine to create your “personal brand,” says Shannon Smith, an image strategist and president of Toronto-based Premiere Image International, and author of Power Manners: How to Use Your Personal Skills for Business and Social Success. “The personal brand that you project affects other’s decisions about your intelligence, character and ability, and it also determines whether or not they’ll do business with you,” she says. “Clients tell me they’ve lost promotions, deals have fallen through, memberships have been denied and they’ve lost friends because they haven’t been aware or have dismissed the importance of personal branding.”
Studies support this theory. A recent survey in the Wall Street Journal says that the more charismatic the CEO of a firm, the better that firm performs, by as much as 10-15%. Another study from UCLA concludes that 85% of all decisions are made with our eyes. So to be successful, you must be “congruent,” says Smith. “Your dress, your grooming, your manners, as well as your words, presentation folder, business cards — everything has to have one clear message. That message is: here is a professional.”
As an image strategist, Smith sees her share of personal branding errors. Here she reveals the biggest blunders and offers tips to better master your image:
Lousy handshakes: “The handshake is critical for a woman’s success,” says Smith. A bad handshake says: “I don’t care to know you, and I’m unprofessional and insecure.” The right way to do it? “Be firm, have good eye contact and a great smile, do two or three pumps and let go.”
Shoddy grooming: Perception is powerful. Since you’re judged within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone, “packaging is everything,” says Smith. Keep a full-length mirror at home and office, and ensure your hair and makeup are impeccable. Note: “Women that don’t wear makeup in the professional arena today are losing out. It adds polish to your presence,” says Smith. For a quick, cheap lesson on this season’s colors and application techniques, stop by the cosmetic counters at your local mall — it’s simple, and rarely costs more than a lipstick.
Being too casual: In today’s ultra-competitive economy, “business has become more serious and conservative,” says Smith. “Mediocrity is dead; casual dress has gone out the window. It’s causing too much confusion amongst employees and it’s gone way too far.” Opt in favour of more formal dress and manners, she says. “A casual business attitude leads to casual work ethic, casual speech and manner, and all of these things are eroding the bottom line.”
Dated duds: It’s tough to convince someone that your business is up-to-date when your clothes are oh-so-80s. Maintain a fresh, current style that reflects the nature of your business and your client base. A professional wardrobe only needs seven or eight basic pieces, says Smith. Buy the best quality you can afford. “Start with a skirt suit, add a pant and three or four blouses. Then add a few good-quality accessories,” she says. Stay away from spike high heels and stick to flats or 2-inch closed-toe pumps, and wear hose at least until May. Finally, she says, “remember that the shorter the skirt, the less credibility you have.”
Terrible table manners: From hosting to toasting to tipping, poor dining etiquette can destroy your chances at impressing a potential client or business contact. To avoid appearing gauche, do your homework, says Smith. For example, learn basic table etiquette (e.g., leave your napkin on your chair when you leave the table; use the bread plate on your left and the water goblet on your right), “test drive” establishments where you’ll be entertaining business clients, craft an appropriate toast ahead of time, and learn local expectations for tipping — if you’re traveling abroad.
Drab voicemail: A dull, rushed voicemail recording tells callers that you don’t care about them or their message. Re-write and practice your recording to remove clichÃ© phrases, add life, and then have others critique it, says Smith. “Be direct, excited about your business, enthusiastic like you’ve been waiting for them to call, and say you’ll get back to them within 24 hours.” Smile when you speak.
Techno sins: Turn your cellphone and other noisy gadgets off during meetings, says Smith. Taking calls in front of clients or colleagues is rude, and if you’re driving, it’s downright dangerous. In e-mails, be polite, brief, err on the side of formality, and watch your tone — humour and sarcasm do not translate well.
Overloading: “Many women carry a big bulky handbag and a briefcase. In business, you should not carry a purse, only a briefcase,” says Smith. Bring only what you need, and to avoid appearing frazzled and unorganized, omit the overflowing makeup bag and office supplies that tend to spill out. Says Smith: “I only carry my files for the day, a very small wallet and a compact makeup kit with a comb, mascara, blush and lipstick. That’s it.”
Sloppy handouts: “Handle your information (such as business cards, marketing materials or presentation handouts) as if it’s gold when you’re giving it to someone,” says Smith. Make sure your papers are neat, clean and well organized without wrinkles or curled edges. You’ve spent a great deal of time preparing it, and rough or careless handling shows you don’t value your information, she says. Show similar respect when you receive business cards or material from others.