Be mindful of your message

Dr. Carol Parker Walsh

It’s easy to send the wrong message without ever opening your mouth. Opportunities are missed, communication is thwarted, and chances are you don’t get a do-over. Maybe something like this has happened to you:

1. You misread an invitation and arrived to a special event dressed casually when everyone around you is in business attire. You feel completely out of place and not taken seriously.

2. You’re meeting a potential new client for a coffee. Unfortunately, your schedules were hard to sync up so you’re slipping this meeting in at a coffee shop right next door to your office-sanctioned Tai Chi class. You’re in your loose clothing, your accessories are off and you’re wearing your soft-soled tennis shoes. You explain this to the potential new client who looks at you curiously. You don’t hear from this person again.

3. You don’t see much point in purchasing any new clothes because you never change sizes. You’ve had this philosophy for the last couple of decades. When suddenly you have to find a new job, you assume that if it was good enough for the company you worked for, your appearance should be good enough for the company you want to be working for. You’re not asked back for a second interview.

4. You’re ready to put your feet into the dating pool or meeting a group of new friends after work to socialize. You’ve been working hard in your career for a long time, but now you’re ready loosen up and have a bit more fun. While you spent the day in a courtroom representing your client, you don’t think about getting out of work attire and into something more friendly looking for your meet-and-greet after work. It doesn’t go so well. Even though your intention is to be social, you can’t seem to switch gears out of office mode and come across a bit stiff and unapproachable.

You may not know exactly what each of these people could have done differently to perhaps alter the outcomes they experienced, although you might have an idea or two.
There is an art and a science to matching your message to your appearance. Here are a few ideas to help you hone in on the right attire for the message you’d like to convey.

Get serious

You’re getting dressed for a situation and you want to be taken seriously. People are expecting you to bring clarity and your best solutions to the table.

Consider: “Business” colors like charcoal, navy, maroon, black; jewelry should be in metals, semi-precious stones or classic pearls; prints can be stripes, small polka dots, sophisticated floral or paisley.

Avoid: Loud prints; bright colors; noisy jewelry; too much makeup.

Loosen up

You’re switching gears from work to play. You’re socializing in more casual settings. You’ve left work behind.

Consider: Touchable fabrics like cashmere, silk, brushed velvet; lighter or brighter colors; prints; accessories that have interest and could be conversation starters.

Avoid: Pinstripes; stiff fabrics; head-to-toe dark colors; classic jewelry.

Show up

If you haven’t changed your look in years, you may appear like you gave up on yourself a decade or more ago. Neglecting to update your style or appearance could send a message that you’re lazy, bored, or stuck – even if you aren’t.

Consider: Updating your look to be more modern and current so you look relevant and savvy; engaging professional help to guide you.

Avoid: Putting your needs off for another few months; expecting you can make these changes on your own.

Unfortunately, we don’t often get second chances. An image consultant can help you align all the parts of your outfit to match the intentions you have. It makes a big difference! Not only will others read these non-verbal cues and make the right assessment about you, but you’ll also be sending a message to yourself that you’re prepared and confident. Whether you’re loosening things up to go out socializing or dressing in a more formal way to present your findings to fellow colleagues, your message will be loud and clear.

Dr. Carol Parker Walsh, a certified image professional and owner of Camas-based Evolve Image Consulting, is the expert behind the Vancouver Business Journal’s advice column: Dress Code. These columns specialize in strategies for developing a positive and professional self-image. Walsh can be reached at