Judging a Book by Its Cover: Why Professional Appearance Matters for Your Business

Thirty seconds.

That is how long it takes for someone to form a first impression about you. Chances are, it’s before you say hello, introduce yourself or even begin the (oh so important) elevator speech.

Social psychologists have determined that within that first 30 seconds, someone new takes in your personal appearance – wardrobe, grooming and nonverbal cues – and makes assumptions on both your character and ability. These assumptions span a variety of qualities including:

  • Education level
  • Career competence and success
  • Personality
  • Level of sophistication
  • Trustworthiness
  • Sense of humor
  • Social heritage

Don’t believe me? Let’s do a little test. Check out the two fellows below. Both are dressed well and nicely groomed. And yet, there is something about the smiling man that leaves a better impression. That something is our brain making assumptions based on appearance.

Don’t blame the brain. It’s actually doing its job quite effectively. When faced with a complex scenario your mind makes snap judgments to quickly categorize. This categorization helps us make sense out of something or someone new. These same categorization techniques help us respond in emergency situations and navigate the complexities of relationships. And because our brains can’t “switch off” categorization, first impressions are subject to snap judgments as well.

Perhaps even more daunting is the fact that the first impression lasts. Due to a cognitive bias called “The Halo Effect,” someone you’ve just met will likely transfer their positive/negative impression of your appearance to other traits such as intellect, leadership skills, and personal qualities.

Now before you assume I’m simply championing well dressed people, think about how this information might affect your business. First impressions are especially important in new business meetings. If you can get a step up on the competition in just 30 seconds, why not do it? Take some extra time to ensure that the top-notch, quality work that you are about to present isn’t counteracted by a less than dapper appearance. Remembering to smile could be the one thing that clinches your next job!



The New Professional Image, Susan Bixler

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell

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