I’ve spent the past few years coaching people on how to present themselves and their ideas well on-camera. Early on, one of my clients asked me to share some techniques for wardrobe quick-fixes, ways to spruce up one’s casual stay-at-home garb for onscreen business meetings. And the 60-Second Fix was born. To be honest, it only takes 30 seconds to do a fast upgrade—it all depends on how handy the extras are.
No one cares what you’re wearing on the bottom half of your body, as long as you keep it hidden intentionally (and unintentionally). As for the top half, Simple and Solid are always good guidelines. But what can you do to elevate the rock band T-shirt or frayed-at-the-neck college sweatshirt?
Here’s the secret the next time you see the meeting reminder pop up: Whatever you’re wearing on top, ADD ONE MORE PIECE.
If something doesn’t have a traditional collar, add something that does, like a jacket or shirt.
If your top is super-casual (T-shirt, sweatshirt, jammies), add a pullover or cardigan to upgrade the look.
If it’s a nice top or blouse, adding a necklace will fill in the bare neckline that shows onscreen.
Anyone can put a top and bottom together. Adding an additional layer conveys that you are taking the meeting seriously and want to look pulled-together and polished. Just keep an emergency piece or two stationed close by and you’ll be camera-ready in a jif!
Video conference calls have become the norm these days and will probably stay that way as organizations reevaluate the need for people to report to an office five days a week. Just as Business Casual dress arrived on the scene decades ago before the “rules” were written, online video meetings have become commonplace and we’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly as people try to figure out the best executive presence practices for the medium.
I, like you, have witnessed some strange and downright shocking choices onscreen and thought, “I can’t believe they did (or said) that.” Eating, drinking, nail filing, bed making, bathroom trips, yelling at spouses/kids/pets are just a few of the things I’ve seen. I’m sure you have a few you could add to that list.
The problem is we can let ourselves become overly relaxed on these calls. I mean, we’re at home on our couch or at the dining room table wearing fuzzy slippers, right? And we can’t help it if the kids interrupt with a math question or the dog barks. I think those disruptions can be fine from time-to-time, it’s more about how we react to them. But when we’re at home, comfy in our happy place, we often reveal a side of ourselves others have never seen before, and yes, I mean the part with no pants. Or the part that screams (unmuted) at the cat.
Our brand, our executive presence, that we’ve worked so hard to build can be damaged, or knocked down a few pegs, in a single online meeting. Here’s a short list of some things to avoid. Have you seen any of these?
1. Dress for the audience. An employment lawyer told me about being part of an online hearing with a judge (in judicial robe) and watching a young attorney argue his case wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. A memo about appropriate wardrobe was blasted out to the attendees the next day. Think about who will be on your call and how they will likely be dressed. An internal meeting full of people who know your closet contents better than you may not need to be impressed. But meeting with anyone outside of the regular crew means you need to be thoughtful—and respectful—with your attire.
2. Don’t log on with a funny onscreen name left over from last night’s online cocktail party. I was guilty of this one and found myself languishing for a long time in the “waiting room” for an important meeting the next day because the host had no idea who I was. Learn from my mistake—change it back to your real name before you leave the party.
3. Conferencing in from your bedroom is just TMI. No one needs to see that particular room in your home, it’s just too personal. I’m not a fan of virtual backgrounds, but better to use one in this case. Another good option is to buy a foldable screen or something portable to throw up quickly behind you.
4. Many regrettable words have been spoken over a live mic.The best advice I can give is always to keep yourself on mute and only unmute when you want to speak. With Zoom, you can select an option in Settings-Audio to “press and hold Space key to temporarily unmute yourself.” That way, you’ll automatically be muted in meetings and can hold down the space bar when you want to speak and lift your hand up when you’re done. It’s a great insurance policy for filtering yourself and whatever is going on in your surroundings.
5. A banker I know shared that on a group call she had with an association, she watched as the incoming President got up from his chair, walk to the frig, pull out two beers, and walk back to his seat with one in each hand. Better options—turn the camera off any time you leave your seat and pour all beverages into a mug before logging on. Why a mug and not a glass? No one can ever see what’s inside a mug.
6. The best engagement tool we have in online meetings is eye contact. As in live interactions, observing other’s body language and facial expressions can reveal much about how they feel about things. But, most speakers make the mistake of looking at their own image and the other attendees as they speak, when they should be looking directly at the camera lens. I know, it feels awkward to stare at that little light when everyone else’s face is off to the side. But if you’d like to capture everyone’s attention and be considered a dynamic, persuasive speaker, look at the camera! Shoot for 99% camera time, 1% glancing at the others.
Your executive presence can take months, sometimes years, to develop. Don’t ruin it by forgetting you’re still “on” when you’re online!
“You never have a second chance to make a first impression.” You’ve heard that for years, but there is a lot of truth in it. We size up others quickly because it helps us make sense of our world and feel safe in it. Research conducted by Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that people judge competence, likeability, trustworthiness, and attractiveness in 250 milliseconds based simply on what they see before them! And good or bad, we tend to cling to our initial judgments of others and view them through that lens for a very long time. So try to always put your best foot forward!
Here’s what not to do:
It’s hard to lose points by overdressing, but you certainly can by underdressing. As Hamlet said, “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” So, what is yours proclaiming today? How you dress tells the world just what you think about yourself and those you’re with. Why not convey intelligence, respect, and confidence? Do your homework, figure out the dress code, then kick it up a half a notch and choose accordingly. You can always lose the jacket, tie, or extra accessories once you scope out the room, but it’s hard to make those things materialize out of thin air.
Focus on Your Phone
You can only have one quality conversation at a time, so if you want to make a positive first impression, you’re going to have to put the phone away. On silent. Or better yet, off. You never want people to think that anything is more important than the conversation you’re having with them right here and right now. If you must make or take a call, excuse yourself and move away to talk in private. Then return and hope they haven’t moved on to someone more present and personable.
Use Negative Body Language
Our body language is another element that conveys how interested we are in others. Eyes that constantly dart around or focus on the floor, slumped postures, crossed arms, and grim expressions tell others you’re probably bored, angry, depressed, or all of the above. Face people heart-to-heart, make attentive eye contact, smile occasionally, and others will find you fascinating because you found them interesting.
Shake Hands Like a Limp Fish
…or a wet noodle or a bonecrusher or fingers-only princess style. Yikes! Your handshake sets the tone for whatever follows. Don’t gross them out with a handshake that creates questions instead of confidence. Offer your entire hand, move in until web meets web, grasp firmly, shake lightly (no pumping!), then release. Add to that a smile and eye contact, along with something pleasant like, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”
Having Nothing to Offer
Here’s another reason to do some homework ahead of time. Research the people you’ll be meeting as well as their companies, industries, and current issues. Prep some questions and insights you could share that would demonstrate your interest in them and knowledge of what’s going on in their worlds. But you can’t be all business either. Prep for lighter conversations, too. Books, movies, sports, theater, food, museums, and travel are all fun topics for small talk, so be ready to share your experiences and recommendations.
Feeling a little invisible at work? Looking for ways to stand out and distinguish yourself from the crowd? It’s difficult to create a strong executive presence if no one knows who you are or what you do. Here are some strategies for building your visibility:
Nurture your network by making one non-required contact each day. Make a call or send a note.
For the required meetings you go to, ask what you can bring or how you can help, like taking the meeting minutes.
Find out if there are other meetings you can attend outside of your department. You’ll benefit from other perspectives and can build your business acumen and value to the organization.
Attend events in your industry both large and small. You can reap different rewards from each.
Volunteer for your professional organizations and be more than a good volunteer, be great. Consider volunteering first for the membership committee. You get to know everyone and can serve as the master connector.
Search out the associations your clients belong to and go to those meetings, too, to stay current on happenings in their industry.
Arrive early to any meeting, if you can. It’s a prime opportunity to introduce yourself to the board members and speaker. Volunteer to help them with setting up or with the registration table.
Get your name in print. Write for trade publications, op-ed pieces, client newsletters.
Consider attending an event outside your industry. Be the only one there who does what you do!
Attend at least one conference in your field. Conferences provide valuable relationship-building opportunities and can bring you national and international visibility.
Do a presentation or panel discussion at the conference. Opportunities abound for those who can deliver a solid presentation.
Additional Ideas –
Volunteer for a special project or task force.
Chair a committee (and chair it well!)
Develop a diverse network of people, including people from all areas within your organization. Be the person who knows where to go to get answers.
Adapted from “It’s Your Move: Dealing Yourself the Best Cards in Life and Work,” by Cyndi Maxey and Jill Bremer.
In her new book, “Presence”, Harvard Business School professor (and creator of “power posing”) Amy Cuddy shares that in first impression situations, people instantly answer two questions about each other:
Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?
Cuddy says that trust equates to warmth and respect to competence. Ideally, we want to be perceived as having both, but we can lose out if we think competence is the most important factor on which to be evaluated. The goal-to be seen first as warm and approachable. Others will respond more favorably when they sense first that you’re trustworthy. It’s only when trust has been established that competence will be evaluated.
The takeaway? Trying too hard at the beginning to convey you’re smart, accomplished, and competent can send a vibe that you’re unapproachable and maybe even manipulative. Brush up on your social skills, ask questions, be a little transparent, and show interest in others. Cuddy says, “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”
Well, maybe not smarter, but they do change the way your brain works! According to a recent study conducted by California State University Northridge, they found that putting on a suit doesn’t just change how you look, it can change the way you perceive the world and makes you think more broadly. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel more powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says lead researcher, psychologist Abraham Rutchick. Wearing suits encourage us to think about the big picture rather than getting hung up on the details, what psychologists call “abstract processing” rather than “concrete processing”. Abstract processing is the kind needed in leadership, while concrete processing focuses more on details. When you look good, you feel more in control and think more broadly and creatively. Shopping, anyone?