If Oprah Winfrey came into an interview dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, we probably wouldn't realize how smart she is; we would get sidetracked by that first impression and be influenced by how she was presenting herself. As an entrepreneur or businessperson, the same holds true for you.
Appearance is just about as important as body language, so make sure that you're dressed for the occasion. You don't want to skew too formal or too informal, but in case you're not sure what tone to set, it's better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed. If you're meeting with potential clients and are dressed too informally, you might give a sense that you don't really care about gaining their business.
"There's an old adage: Don't let the dress wear you. You wear the dress," says Melanie Notkin, founder, Savvy Auntie, and author of Otherhood. "When I'm in a client meeting or giving a speech, I want the client or audience to be able to focus on what I'm saying, not what I'm wearing. I want to look strong, chic, and savvy. I usually wear clean, elegant lines that are not distracting and add one piece of bold jewelry to emulate strength."
In today's competitive arena, entrepreneurs need to always put their best foot forward. "You are your brand, especially if you are a business owner, so making sure that your look communicates your best self is important," advises Laurel Mintz, CEO of Elevate My Brand, an L.A.-based marketing agency. Mintz advises that you maintain a signature look or color "because you are constantly marketing yourself and if there is something distinguishable, it makes you memorable." For example, everyone knows Mintz is a "purple girl," so the color purple is a big part of her professional wardrobe.
Color is one part of branding yourself. Another key component is highly visible accessories--such as multicolored hair, piercings, or tattoos--that you could choose to play up or down depending on your identity. If these are a core part of your identity, keep them out and wear them proudly. Just understand that not everyone is comfortable with these traditionally "unprofessional" accouterments.
"Be aware of your audience," advises Alyssa Gelbard, the president of Resume Strategists and a noted career advice expert. While senior professionals make mistakes now and then, Gelbard feels that younger workers in particular often lack professionalism in how they present their brand. "It sends the wrong message, and you can't afford that. You're sending messages without even realizing it. So if you're sitting next to someone who's worked in your industry for 15 years, you're communicating something that clashes with that standard."
I'm known in digital marketing circles for having a multitude of colorful iPhone cases shaped like Rilakkuma, the famous Japanese teddy bear character. Most days, I make a point of matching my iPhone case with my outfit. I realize that some people might not want to work with Firebrand Group because of that, but I'm perfectly comfortable with people perceiving me as a bit of an eccentric. My reasoning? In the long term, clients who don't appreciate my creativity and whimsy won't be good fits for our business anyway. So by all means, spice things up a little bit if you deem it appropriate--just understand that not everybody will appreciate it.
As often as you can, embrace your differences and quirks. They'll help you stand out in people's minds. Albert Einstein, famous for his wild hair and somewhat disheveled appearance, had an utter disdain of socks. In contrast, social marketing strategist Ted Rubin always wears interesting and unusual footwear and regularly shares social media posts tagged #tedsockie. Prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-regarded director of the Hayden Planetarium, is known for his colorful vests and ties. Other distinctive people--from Steve Jobs to Michael Kors to Johnny Cash--have stood out by having a personal uniform.
Physical branding isn't about having good looks; it's about having the right look. If you feel like something in your appearance or presentation is holding you back, try to embrace that weakness head-on and turn it into strength. If there's something about you that someone will notice, doesn't it make sense to acknowledge it and to take control the conversation?