I grew concerned when he kept smiling at me from across the room. I could see the recognition in his eyes.

"Oh no," I thought. "We've met before and I don't remember him."

I started to worry even more when he walked towards me.

"Hi Jeff!" he said. "It's great to finally talk to you in person."

My stomach sank. Great: he even remembered my name. So while I hated to, I confessed. "I'm really sorry but I've forgotten your name," I said.

"Don't be silly," he laughed. "We connected on LinkedIn last week and you agreed to give me some advice after your presentation."

Ah. I did know him. We had connected. We had planned to meet. I felt bad for not having recognized him.

But not too bad, since he looked nothing--and I mean nothing--like his profile photo.

And while I know I sound superficial, I spent the next five minutes thinking more about that than I did about our conversation.

Today we all serve as our own PR agents. We have plenty of ways to make ourselves look good. The most common is through photos.

Think I'm wrong? Go to LinkedIn and check out a few profile photos. Or some head shots on company websites. Then check out their Twitter photos or do an image search and find some candid shots.

Does the person you see in candid photos look like the same person you see in profile photos? Often the two are not even close. The Brad Pitt you see in a profile photo turns out to look more like, oh, me.

(Or like the old joke goes: They held a look-alike contest--and your photo finished fourth.)

Of course you should try to look good in your photos. We don't need research, although there is plenty of it, to know that people like to do business with attractive people.

But there are problems with trying to look too good. Someday potential customers might meet you in person. Or when they're considering doing business with you they might do a quick search and discover plenty of photos of the real you.

Either way, they soon discover you're not as handsome, as trim, as young, and definitely not the focused-yet-sensitive-artist-with-a-knowing-smile your profile makes you out to be.

The contrast is distracting at best, jarring at worst--and definitely impacts the impression you want and need to make.

But maybe I'm alone in that opinion; after all, my teenage son snapped my Inc. profile photo (and later my LinkedIn profile photo) in our cul-de-sac. What you get in my photos, for better or worse, is me--and while the real me is far from impressive, I am easy to recognize in person. (Big nose, bad haircut, bird legs... hey, I'm unmistakable!)

So I talked to a friend whose profile photos are extensively and unapologetically enhanced; she makes no bones about it. As she says, "I don't want to look like me. I'm happy if my photos are vaguely reminiscent of me."

Ultimately her position boils down to this: "I figure if Jennifer Lawrence can look this good on Vanity Fair," she says, showing me a copy of the magazine, "then why shouldn't I look as good as I can look in my professional photos?"

Courtesy Vanity Fair

"Because you're not an actor, musician, or entertainer," I respond since she loves a good debate, "and your living doesn't depend to a substantial degree on how you look."

That's true for most of us. We make our livings based on what we do, not how we look.

Sure, we expect celebrities to be professionally styled and perfectly lit and Photoshopped. For entertainers, appearances in photos and videos and on the occasional red carpet are a facet of the product they ultimately deliver. That's especially true for actors--by definition their job is to portray something or someone they are not.

But we're not entertainers. In business, people expect us to be exactly what we appear and purport to be. Authenticity is highly valued.

So if authenticity in word and action truly matters... shouldn't our photos be just as authentic?

Besides: it's okay to be over thirty-five. It's okay to have a different body than you did when you were twenty. It's okay to have wrinkles and gray hair. What you provide for customers matters infinitely more than how you look.

So here's a better approach to take with your profile photos: simply consider how you will look when you first meet someone and then match that look.

Definitely look good... but also look real.

And if you're ever unsure where to draw the line, just apply a different Jennifer Lawrence Test than my friend's:

  • If you are Jennifer Lawrence, go ahead and do anything you wish to look great for your profile photo. (Not, if you're Jennifer Lawrence, that it takes much effort to look great.) But...
  • If you are not Jennifer Lawrence, just look like a put-together you.

Granted you might feel uncomfortable not using that highly styled, Photoshopped-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life photo of you from five or ten years ago.

But don't worry. Other people will appreciate the real you... because who you really are is more than enough, both online and in person.

Agree? Disagree?

Published on: Nov 10, 2014
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