Sometimes little things make a big difference. Here are some easy ways to get a competitive edge.
In a world where people and products alike are increasingly seen as replaceable commodities, you can't afford not to seem just a little bit more professional than your competition.
Here are five easy tweaks:
1. Hire a Copy Editor
There's no denying that business communications have become increasingly casual as people more frequently use email, messaging, blogs and so forth. This creates an opportunity, because you can now create an aura of superior professionalism simply by communicating with error-free text ... especially if your competition is winging it.
If you're not capable of writing perfect copy yourself, though, hire a copy editor to go over your most important documents–even emails. It's surprisingly inexpensive. I've had good experiences with PureText, but if they're too busy, it shouldn't be too difficult to locate an alternative.
2. Speak More Clearly
I've interviewed hundreds of top executives, and the most successful (like Larry Ellison and Michael Dell) have well-modulated voices and tend to speak slowly and clearly. The wannabes, on the other hand, talk fast, say "uh ..." or "like ..." in the middle of their sentences or, worst of all, have that annoying little uptick at the end of a sentence that turns it from a statement into a question.
To sound more professional, record your voice when you're talking in person and on the telephone, listen carefully to the playback, become aware of what you're doing, then try again. Repeat until you've learned to slow down and speak more clearly. If necessary, hire a vocal coach.
3. Sanitize Your Online Persona
I've written about this in the past, but it bears repeating: Don't buy into this nonsense that you should meld your business and personal life.
Unless you're running for political office, publicity about your family distracts from your professional image, even if you've got a trophy spouse and perfect children. And if you're into anything at all unusual or weird, I guarantee you that it will come up in some business situation that makes you wish it hadn't. So troll through the social networking sites and make your personal life private again. If this means creating a separate Facebook page for your working life, so be it.
4. Spiff Up Your Casual Wardrobe
Pretty much everyone in the business world is savvy to the "dress for success" look for normal business situations. However, plenty of people (I'm talking to you, guys) haven't a clue how to dress when the "dress for success" would make you look stuffy. I've seen guys who look perfect in an Armani transform themselves into doofuses on Casual Friday by wearing Khaki Dockers and Grandpa-worthy polo shirt. With women, the main problems are casual outfits that are too revealing–of either assets or flaws; both wind up being unnecessary distractions.
And for both sexes, the "hangin' around the dorm room" look is always an ugly mistake. Hint: Shop for your casual outfits at someplace upscale. Buy from somebody on commission ... and ask for their advice.
5. Keep Your Office Neat (but Not Spotless)
If your office is a mess of papers, publications and assorted junk, you come off like a disorganized slob. On the other hand, if your desk is completely empty, you'll likely come off as an obsessive compulsive freak.
The trick here is to keep your space tidy enough so that it's clear you're organized, but not so tidy that people will be afraid you'll strangle them if they leave a scrap of paper on your desk. By the way, if your computer screen is visible to all and sundry, make sure your screen "desktop" isn't a mess either.
GEOFFREY JAMES writes "Sales Source on Inc.com," the world's most-read sales-oriented blog. His new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, will be published in early 2014. To get weekly blog updates, sign up for his free "Insider" newsletter. @Sales_Source