Personal Appearance

Part of Non-Verbal Communication

Personal appearance is an often disregarded part of communication and presentation skills.

When you are speaking in public you may be representing your organisation or just yourself, but it is still you in the front line. It is you that the other person, group or audience sees and before you have time to open your mouth and give an account of yourself, certain assumptions, both consciously and subconsciously, have been made.

First impressions are very important - they can be about attitude as well as dress.

Visual impact is at least as important as verbal impact, people will very quickly make assumptions based on your facial expressions, the clothes you wear, how well groomed you are and your body language.

Facial Expressions

Little can be done to alter your face but a lot can be done about the expression that is on it!

However the day started and whatever minor crisis has occurred along the way, people have not come to see you with a dark expression on your face. 

It is your duty - to yourself as well as to the organisation that you represent - to convey a calm, friendly and professional exterior, despite how you may feel inside. Try to smile and appear optimistic.

Personal Image:

The reflection that stares back at you from a mirror is not necessarily a true likeness of the face known to family, friends and colleagues, because they will see you off-guard, in repose, concentrating on a task or listening to them.

How many people can honestly admit to looking in a mirror without altering their expression?

It is quite natural to ‘play to a mirror’ possibly by raising an eyebrow, pulling a face or smiling at the reflection. This is why people often feel self-conscious when they see a ‘bad’ photograph of themselves.

The Real You:

It is human nature to make compromises.  All individuals change their approach depending on the people they meet and what they feel is expected from them.  Your 'on-duty' self, the one who functions in public, is different from your 'off-duty' self, the one concerned with home, family and friends.  Everyone has many and varied roles in life.  You can be one person and be a parent, son/daughter, brother/sister, friend, adviser, patient, client and consumer all in one day.

These differing roles all require their own particular qualities and skills in personal communication and can also call upon different requirements of attitude and appearance, i.e., of visual image.  Your external image (appearance) is how you are seen by the world, whereas the real you (not a role model or the person you would like to be) is someone who is honest with themselves.

For more on this see our page: Non-verbal Communication: Face and Voice.

Clothes and Grooming

What sort of external image is appropriate to the organisation you represent? 

Only you can answer this question.  Due to the nature of the work, some organisations are happy for people to be casually dressed, whilst others may expect smarter attire.  It is important to be suitably dressed within expected limits.

Nobody expects you to be packaged into something you are not, but your appearance is a reflection of your own self-esteem and you should aim to present yourself to your best possible advantage. Whilst you might be casually dressed when working within your organisation, a more formal approach may well be preferable when representing your organisation at an external meeting. 

Good grooming and a tidy appearance is preferable, whether casually or more formally dressed.

Body Language

See our page: Body Language for more information.

Understanding body language is one of the most important aspects of personal presentation.  The image conveyed by the physical self should support and enhance what is being communicated verbally.  If the visual image differs widely from the spoken message, it is often the non-verbal account that is believed.

The way you sit, stand, your gestures and mannerisms and your facial expressions will say far more about you and how you are feeling at any given time than the words you are using.  When individuals are nervous or uneasy, their behavioural 'bad habits' become more pronounced.

Awareness of your body language, of how you behave under pressure, what signals you are unconsciously giving, how nerves and stress affect you physically, can help you understand how you 'come across' to others. It can also explain how the wrong impression is sometimes given and how confusion can occur.

Working on body language is a way of improving personal presentation.  For example, when concentrating on something rather hard, your expression may look troubled, when in reality you are not anxious at all, just absorbed.  This does not mean you should go around with a fixed smile on your face, but just be aware that your physical self might send one set of signals when your mind is involved elsewhere.

Body language can also be used as a mask to convey contrary feelings.  How often have you nodded firmly when you did not understand a word, smiled when your instinct was to scowl, clapped enthusiastically at the end of a talk that nearly put you to sleep?  In these cases you were not being hypocritical, but using body language positively as the mechanism of good manners.

Our gestures are part of our personalities, a part of how we express ourselves.  Hand and arm movements can add emphasis, aid explanation and convey enthusiasm. They only become a negative signal when repeated so often that they become irritating to the observer. Listeners can become so side-tracked by the sight of someone constantly playing with their hair, tapping on the table with a pen, etc., that they no longer listen to the spoken word.  These negative signals can break down the communication process.

Positive and Negative Body Language

Positive body language includes:

  • Maintaining eye contact with the person you are speaking to.
  • Smiling (if appropriate) but especially as a greeting and at the end of a conversation.
  • Sitting squarely on a chair, leaning slightly forward (this indicates you are paying attention).
  • Nodding in agreement.
  • A firm handshake.
  • Presenting a calm exterior.
  • Looking interested.

Negative body language includes:

  • Not looking at a person when speaking.
  • Tapping a foot, fingers etc.
  • Rocking backwards and forwards.
  • Scratching.
  • Continually clearing your throat.
  • Fiddling with hair, ear lobes, jewellery, jacket, glasses, etc.
  • Picking at fingers or finger nails.
  • Yawning.
  • Repeatedly looking at your watch or a clock in the room.
  • Standing too close to others.
  • Inattention to a person who is speaking.