I’ve watched the Friday television programme, ‘What Not to Wear’ with a mix of fascination and horror. The programme involves two British fashion gurus who transform people who’ve strayed from the path of good fashion sense. They change people into stylish, confident, professional looking individuals with a new look. The gurus pounce on an unsuspecting victim (both male and female), who have been nominated by their nearest and dearest, all of whom deeply concerned at how the nominated one presents themselves to the world.

Over a period of weeks, the gurus go through the recipient’s wardrobe with a fine tooth comb and discard much loved garments, shoes and accessories. They confront them with verbal and visual feedback on how they look in their clothes, then give them advice on the styles, colours and clothing combinations that would suit their shape and size. Assistance is also given on hair styles and colouring; skin, body care and posture. After the makeover, the recipient speaks of their new understanding of their body shape, clothing styles and garments that flatter. They speak of their new found confidence in their new look and the positive impact it has had on them, their loved ones and workmates.

Watching the programme and seeing the differences in the pre and post-makeover look, made me realise how useful the exercise could be for everyone. Particularly so, I thought, for managers and business owners. Personal presentation and professional image could make the difference between gaining credibility and getting business or not. Receiving advice on clothing, styles and colours that suit, could therefore be a sound investment. How often have you looked at colleagues and thought ‘they look as though they’ve been dragged through a hedge’ or ‘that suit/skirt/shirt/jacket is far too tight/too loose/too short/too long’? How often have you looked at colleagues and thought their clothing was inappropriate for the situation – perhaps a too casual-Friday look, for Monday-Thursday? And if you have, have you also wondered whether your colleagues on occasions, may think similar things about you?

Useful as makeovers are, I don’t think that clothing and style advice, by itself, is enough. Something else is needed as well.

In noticing people in various situations over the past few months, I’ve been reminded that everyone has personal habits that are displayed quite unconsciously. They’re habits we don’t even think about yet may do all the time, whether in public, in meetings or in the workplace. Some of them are particularly unattractive and not a great look. Unconscious habits I’ve seen recently in public forums include ear cleaning (with the end of pens), relentless nail grooming (picking nails, cleaning under them with staplers or teeth), constant head scratching; incessant teeth cleaning (noisily sucking out food items, using any number of fingers) and constant nail nibbling and biting (the eight fingers, two thumbs routine, over and over again).

Other unconscious habits participants may display in meetings include pen clicking, foot tapping and hand wringing. There can be shrinking back in chairs or in-your-face leaning forward; nervous coughs or cutting across others’ speech; eye-rolling, drumming fingers on tables or constantly shuffling papers. Deep sighing, tsking, fidgeting or staring at the ceiling or out the windows often feature.

So what can be done about noticing and changing our unconscious habits? One simple solution is to be video taped. This could be when conducting an interview, participating in a meeting or some other routine activity that involves communicating verbally and non-verbally with others. The benefit of video taping is that it gives us the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us.

It may show us displaying our best or worst habits. It will give actual feedback on our performance (it’s hard to deny what we do, when we see it for ourselves), and raises our awareness of any unhelpful, unconscious habits which may hinder us. It enables us to make changes – to stop the unhelpful unconscious habits and to adopt positive conscious habits that help us present and maintain a professional image.

The whole exercise is not one for the faint-hearted. It requires courage to put yourself forward to receive clothing/style advice and see video capture of unconscious habits; courage to hear constructive criticism about our overall look; courage to change our wardrobe and to front up with a potentially new look. It may also require a hit to the bank account, as well as the ego. The benefits however, are considerable. Our personal presentation is so important – how do you think you measure up?

First Published in NZ Business September 2004�

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