What do people say about you when you’re not there?

I once spent two hours getting a man into a room and onto a chair. Why, you might ask? He’d come to me to help prepare for an interview for the top job in his large organisation. I knew that he had to look the part right from the very start, to give the impression that he was the right person from the moment he entered the room.

Years ago, when I was an actor, I was sent by my agent for a casting for a commercial. The part was for a traffic warden. I dressed in a dark tailored coat, flat black shoes and carried a bag with a shoulder strap. I’ll never forget walking into the waiting room, which resembled a traffic wardens convention, full of women like me who’d done their best to look the part. Every new person who arrived would burst into giggles at the sight of us all. We looked ridiculous en masse, but what we were all trying to do was convince the director of the commercial that we would fit the bill, because we knew that if you don’t look right, you don’t get the part.

I train people in communication skills and I’ve noticed a big increase recently in people wanting to learn ‘how to come over as more confident’ or to add weight or gravitas to their persona. People in business have always had to be conscious of the impression they create but are we now living in an age where how you look and sound have become almost more important than whether you’d be good at the job? Is success increasingly tied to your personal brand?

Expert Lorna Hudson defines our personal brand as “How you reflect the company vision and values. How you look, sound and behave.” I first met Lorna when she gave a fascinating presentation about what impression we create simply by what colours we choose to wear. In a career which spans marketing and image consultancy, Lorna launched her company, Individual Impact, in 2000, specialising in helping people manage their reputations, by what they say on the outside. How do we portray the ‘brand’? “What are the values of your business? Innovative? Reliable? Trustworthy? World-class? Whatever they are, you as an individual need to personify these values. A good way to think of it is perhaps ‘What do people say about you when you’re not there?’” And what if you realise that your own values are miles away from the values of the business you’re involved with? “You’re in the wrong bloody place!” Lorna is adamant: “If the culture doesn’t fit, leave!”

How does what we wear reflect on our own personal brand and on that of our business?
“It’s one thing for your clothes to suit you; it’s another for them to reflect your company values and style,” says Lorna. “Wearing a black tailored suit with a crisp white shirt says ‘Austere and hugely professional’. Go for charcoal and blue if you want to imply approachability and trustworthiness.” A key part, she tells me, is understanding the dress code hierarchy – the more structured clothing the more influence you give out. “Lines and structure create visual influence. For a more casual look: knitwear. Your key thought is ‘What is appropriate attire?’”

This reminds me of the early days of voicebusiness. Our first client was the Faculty of Advocates, with whom we still work, training ‘Devils’ to speak well in court. They have a strict dress code, very much along the crisp white shirt and tailored suit lines. My colleagues and I – all from theatre backgrounds – tried to dress in a similar way, but quickly realised that our brand was different to theirs. We didn’t have to look like them; in fact it was necessary that we didn’t. However, we needed to adapt our look to fit their ethos, whilst remaining consistent with our own brand. That way, everyone felt comfortable.

What about how you behave and sound? Lorna insists that confident body language makes you look credible. When she’s working with people she checks their handshake, eye contact and posture. What she calls ‘brand touch points’. These all need to be right. “Does how you sound match the values of your business?” I know exactly what Laura means here. On the few occasions I’ve interviewed staff to help run voicebusiness – where our main work is helping people sound good in public – one of my priorities is how they sound over the phone and in person.

Laura Gordon also stresses the confidence angle and echoes Lorna’s point about what others might say about us when we’re not there. “Confidence is important with regard to the impression we create and how we build up a consistent perception in others. So the perception you have of yourself should be similar to the perception other people have of you.” She thinks it’s a good thing to examine how you are coming over now and then, “Ask the people around you. Put together a kind of peer monitoring group!”

Laura is an ex-lawyer and council member of CBI Scotland. She’s worked extensively with business leaders on building their companies and their personal brand, through her company Corporate Connections International. She has almost slid into helping people manage their brand: “I suddenly realised this is what I’ve been doing” and she is now consciously focussing on this aspect of her work. Why is managing your personal or business brand so important? “It’s about your reputation and your commitment to that on and offline.”

Ouch. Stories about young people talking on Facebook about drunken orgies spring to mind. With more and more businesses and individuals developing their online presence, Laura strongly believes we have to be very aware of how we come over in all these different fora. “Linked-In, tweets, web and blog sites, YouTube and Pod casts – how consistently are you coming over? They all reflect the values of the brand you want to project. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you know you’re going to meet someone? Google them and look up their website. You will hit problems if you’re not portraying the real you.” Laura points out that the public is a lot more media savvy nowadays. “Being honest and truthful and having a sense of purpose and being able to portray that is incredibly effective.”

But being honest and truthful is also about being yourself. I am always suggesting to my clients that they have every right to do things differently, if that feels appropriate. We don’t have to be the same as other people – what a boring world that would be. Some people looked at my associates and I with horror, when we first appeared on the scene. ‘Actors telling us how to present?!’ Yet we built a brand that was different, innovative/a bit off the wall – depending on your point of view – but undoubtedly honest and still much in demand 15 years later. When I get up in the morning I think about who I’m going to be training or meeting that day and dress to make a bridge between who I am and who they are. If I wore a bomber jacket and a pair of old jeans when I went to the Faculty of Advocates, I would become the object of the attention rather than them. Would they take me seriously? Equally, I’ve never possessed a dark suit and a crisp white shirt. So I might well wear a jacket and shirt to the Faculty, but the chances are the jacket would be orange, because this expresses my personality and distinguishes me from them.

My brand is more about distinctiveness than uniformity so I need to demonstrate this in my look and behaviour. I also want my clients to trust me if I advise them to try new things, to think out of the box, to dare to be different.

I well remember the appearance of the smiling young Richard Branson with his long hair and open necked shirts, taking the music business by storm with his racily named ‘Virgin Records’. Everything about him said ‘different’. How did Apple become such a distinctive brand? By being cooler than everyone else, so that people felt the need to identify with it. ‘Look at me, I’ve got an iPad!” It all stems from Steve Jobs, the casual, cool, design-conscious and brilliant CEO.

Honesty in branding is of paramount importance. As Laura points out “It’s hard to build a good brand and incredibly easy to undermine it. Look at Gerald Ratner.” Ratner, former chief executive of a famous jewellery company with the same name, described their products as ‘total crap’ in a speech in 1991. His groups value plummeted by £500 million and he resigned the following year. His brand was a sham, which he didn’t believe in. A year after that the group changed its name. A more recent example, in the financial world, might be if your brand has always exemplified prudence, longevity and stability, is the public likely to view what it perceives as reckless gambling with other people’s money followed by large, self-awarded bonuses in a positive light?

Both Lorna and Laura agree that you ignore self-branding at your peril. You have to market yourself” says Laura. “You can’t afford not to focus on self-branding,” is Lorna’s view, “it gives you a competitive edge. People buy from people.”

Lorna Hudson: website
Laura Gordon: website


Cordelia Ditton and Voicebusiness

Cordelia trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, has an MA (Hons) in sociology from the University of Glasgow and is a certified General Practitioner of NLP. She has worked in theatre, television, film and radio, as a trainer for presenters and comedians and as a lecturer / director in drama schools. She is a published playwright and has written numerous articles for newspapers and magazines. She started voicebusiness in 1996.

voicebusiness turns nervous wrecks into skilled presenters, polished public speakers, effective networkers and excellent business communicators. voicebusiness uses specially adapted acting techniques for the business environment which are coupled with well-established disciplines such as NLP. The training is professional, friendly, and above all, effective.

voicebusiness director Cordelia Ditton (Dilly) has over 14 years experience of training business clients in how to make the most of their presentations and develop the skills needed to become an effective speaker.

Cordelia Ditton, Director, voicebusiness
web: www.voicebusinesstraining.co.uk
blog: http://talkaboutspeaking.com
facebook: http://facebook.com/talkaboutspeaking
Linked in: http://linkedin.com/in/cordeliaditton
twitter: @DillyTalk

6 Comments on What do people say about you when you’re not there?

  1. It is becoming increasingly difficult to “hide” various (potentially less public) aspects of our personality (brand). It is a balance between active personal social media sites – such as photo-tags in Facebook – and our professional, business site/image. My advice, be you. Be authentic and live by your values – in work, at play, at home. Personal values and the respective integration of these into work/business is a key element of Ethiconomics; we are our brand, like it or not, so being aware of how we are actually seen rather than how we “wish” to be seen is becoming very much more important for personal AND professional success, especially in the light of the rapidly expanding use of social media sites. Be authentic, live by your true values and what have you to worry about ??

  2. Thanks for your comments Phil. Whilst I agree with the essence of what you say I’m not sure that people are always particularly aware of how they come over.

    Let me give an example – a job interview. Someone might be perfect for a job in almost every respect, but are unaware that they might have something as simple as eye contact issues which will put them out of the running. I know a CEO who never gives a job to someone who fixes their eye contact on her, rather than distributing it around the interview panel. She sees this as a bad ploy, when it could be simple lack of awareness. Having been trained in NLP I tend to look at how someone behaves, rather than assuming that’s ‘who they are’. Behaviour can often be changed easily, but the penny has to drop first.

  3. As always, I very thought provoking piece of writing from Cordelia. I don’t particularly like wearing a suit, but sometimes I do dig one out of the wardrobe, especially when I am meeting people that don’t know me and to whom I need to present a highly professional image. However I much prefer to wear more relaxed clothing, preferably jeans/t-shirt/flat shoes! I’d like to think that the way I behave says more about me than my clothes. Is that naive?

  4. The fact that you are asking if you are being naïve means that you care about the impression you make which is excellent. In reality, ask yourself what your success rate is when meeting people for the first time in terms of whether this turns into long-term business relationships. If you have a good conversion rate then it is clear you have a presence which is greater than just your appearance. However, if you think that there may have been occasions where you didn’t win the business or create the right rapport it may be worth taking note of how you came across at first meeting. People who are able to ‘get away’ with not paying attention to how they look are in the minority. If are one of those people you are extremely lucky.

    • Hi Lorna, thanks for your response. I do care about my appearance, but I don’t particularly like wearing suits. I tend to wear a smart suit when I want to portray a very business-like persona, but I feel like I’m reflecting only one part of me when I do it. Most of the time I wear trousers and a reasonably smart top; sometimes I wear jeans (I work with students!). I think I have a very good ‘conversion rate’, so I guess I’m one of the lucky ones!

  5. Phil’s comment above has led me to think more about the whole notion of authenticity and training.
    I’ve written a new post about this on my blog: http://talkaboutspeaking.com/when-being-authentic-isnt-quite-enough/

    Do comment!

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