Professional Presence, Dress Codes & Ben Carson

Watching the recent Presidential debates punctuated the importance of how you “show up” in your professional world.  An important element of effective professional communication is aligning with the “style” norms of the organization or group you are a part of or working with. 

Recently I was asked by an executive client about “dress codes” and why there are implicit and sometimes explicit rules about how to dress.  Great question!  My answer is that you do not want your appearance to distract from your competence.  If I am busy noticing your blue hair or tattoo, or simply your jeans when everyone else is wearing more formal dress, I may be distracted into wondering about your motivation for those choices rather than being favorably impressed by your brilliance or competence.  Schools have dress codes to eliminate distraction and discrimination.  Companies and organizations also typically have norms for our professional appearance and it is in your best interest to follow them. 

Another great illustration of the importance of professional presence was the debate stage with Republican Candidates.  When I asked my class of business graduate students about the differences, one of them characterized Ben Carson’s presence as “NyQuil” which is often used to help put us sleep.  He is clearly brilliant and competent to have made it to that stage yet the cadence of his speech was significantly slower than his opponents in a noticeable way.  Matching the style and cadence speech norms is important in making positive impressions.

Your professional presence aka your body language speaks more loudly about you than the words that you choose.  Your emotional intelligence and ability to “read the room” and modify accordingly makes a big difference in how you are perceived.  Here is one of my favorite short TEDtalks with some useful suggestions on how to improve your communication.