Nail Your First Impression

You might not realize it but you are constantly being judged by how you put yourself together.  The next day you feel lazy and decide not to shower could be the day you meet someone who could change your career.  It’s better to just accept that first impressions truly matter and take control over how to nail yours.  Give me 5 minutes and I can help.

I do an exercise with my students where we review different looks on the same person and use adjectives to describe the person in each of the looks. It’s amazing how much people infer by how you dress and the other little details that make up your look.  Let’s play the game and you’ll see what I mean.

Meet Theresa.  On the left Theresa is dressed in casual attire.  This could be jeans and a top or athletic clothes.  There are two images shown for casual attire so you can get a feel for sporty vs jeans casual.  In the middle, Theresa is wearing business casual attire and on the right side she’s wearing formal attire.  What words come to mind when you look at each picture of her?  For the casual pictures, perhaps you’re thinking she looks sporty, relaxed, or easy-going.  For the business casual picture, you might say organized, polished, or stylish.  For the formal picture, you could say professional, in charge, or confident.

What Theresa wears definitely creates a judgement in our minds about her skills and abilities.  The point to make here is what you wear and how you put yourself together really do matter.  It’s best to limit casual looks to situations that are without a doubt casual.  Formal looks should also be limited to when you’re specifically instructed to dress formally.  Your safe zone or sweet spot for attire, if you are building your career, is business casual.


Here’s a cheat sheet for what the differences are between casual, business casual, and formal attire: 


All in all, there are three main things you should think about with your first impression:

1.     How You Enter a Room

Do you walk in with your head held high and consciously make eye contact with people or do you look down at your phone and hope that no one notices you walk in?

How to win when you enter a room:  walk with confidence, smile, make eye contact with people, say hello, introduce yourself where possible with a firm hand shake, and choose a seat or standing position that will get you noticed.

Avoid doing these things:  looking at your phone, walking with a slumped posture, sitting at the first open seat at the back of the room.

2.     What You Wear

Follow the guidelines above and err on the side of business casual.  If you’re building your career, be very selective with where you choose to wear casual attire.  To be safe, limit casual attire to the gym, at home, or at a friend’s house because outside of those areas you might meet someone who could influence your career and you wouldn’t want to be caught looking sloppy.

Even if you work in an office that is casual and allows for jeans and sneakers, I suggest you choose nice jeans without tears or stains and dressy sneakers not the sneakers you wear to the gym or do to yardwork.  You want to stand out for being well put together where you work.  This is an important component of your brand and it actually will significantly affect how seriously people take you.

On the same note, as I mentioned above, limit formal attire to occasions that specifically call for it.  For interviews, you can ask the person who contacts you to schedule the interview if business casual or formal would be appropriate attire.   In some industries, over-dressing too much can be a misfit with the company culture so be aware of that too.

Keep in mind, these rules don’t apply to people in senior positions.  People who have made it in their careers have much more flexibility to wear what they choose than someone who is still building their career so don’t be distracted if senior people are dressed more casually than other employees.  They can wear whatever they want but you need to be more careful.

3.  Grooming, Personal Hygiene, and Other Niceties

We’ve all had a coworker who clearly doesn’t shower regularly or who always has crazy bedhead hair.  Don’t be that person.  Make an effort to always be clean, smell good, style your hair, and keep facial hair well-groomed.  Smelling good doesn’t mean overloading on cologne or perfume though – go easy so you don’t turn people off.  And for women, we all know pony tails are our lazy hair style unless you’re talented at doing fancy ponytails.  It’s okay to occasionally put your hair back in a tidy pony tail or bun but realize that a more polished, professional look is having your hair styled and it being down.  If you’re a guy and you have facial hair, I strongly encourage you to keep it well-groomed.  Bushy beards just aren’t a good idea unless you want to be a lumberjack.  And ladies, go easy on the makeup.  Subtle makeup can really complete a look but beware of overdoing it.

I hope this discussion on first impressions has been helpful and given you some guidelines to follow so you build a powerful personal brand. 

Next time, I’m going to talk about your virtual first impression.  There’s a lot to talk about there.  In the meantime, I encourage you to do a little poll.  Ask your classmates or coworkers what their impression is of how you put yourself together.  You may be surprised at what you hear.  If you don’t love the feedback, still be grateful for it, and realize that you can change it.  Today, you can start putting together a look that will help you get the career you want.

Until next time …follow me on Twitter at @MadeToHire, and on Facebook. 

Merryn Roberts-Huntley