As an image consultant to business professionals, the question I get asked most often is: “What does a professional image look like?”
In my 12 years of image consulting, I haven’t come across a single image that conveys ‘this is a definitive professional image. It would work for everyone.’ This is because different industries will have different dress codes – their own tribal look, if you like, and also no two people are alike in terms of their physique, their job role, lifestyle and personality.
But, whichever industry you are in, and regardless of where you are on the corporate ladder, I do have 7 special but universal steps to a stylish and professional image:
1. Use the ‘50% neutral colour’ rule
I love encouraging my clients to use colour as a way to look stylish and distinctive. However, in a business setting, you’ll need to apply a sense of visual balance when it comes to using colour. My rule is: keep at least 50% of your outfit in a neutral colour and you’ll look great. This rule applies to both men and women. Neutral colours are grey, navy, black, brown, stone, cream, dark khaki, burgundy, and even denim if your workplace allows it. These colours act as a solid (but not boring) base to your outfit.
When 50% of your outfit is in a neutral colour – this could be your skirt, trousers, jacket or suit – you can choose to be as colourful as you wish with the remaining 50%, and yet still look professional. For women, if your whole outfit has to be colourful, say, a dress or a suit, remember to team it with neutral coloured accessories.
2. Your clothes must fit you
This is so important, especially if you’re a petite person like myself, because you don’t want to look overwhelmed by your clothes. Plus the right fit will make you look taller, leaner and more confident. So pay special attention to the length of your trousers, skirts, dresses, jackets and jacket sleeves. Have them professionally altered to fit you.
3. Look appropriate – plan ahead
Use your clothes to send the most effective message about you. Your professional image should help you to connect with others more easily – people should have a good idea of your capabilities and values via your appearance. Don’t let your image create a barrier between youself and the people you meet. So before you choose what to wear each day, ask yourself: What’s the agenda for today? Where will I be? Who will I meet? What do I want to achieve from today?
4. Choose natural fabrics
Cotton, medium-weight silk and smooth wool will give you a great shape and comfort. Man-made fabrics, such as polyester and acrylic, just don’t deliver the same results over time. For key items, such as suits, jackets, tailored trousers and skirts, invest in good quality, natural fabrics. Your clothes will look high-quality and they’ll look good for longer.
5. Small details, big impact
As you know, it’s the little details that will make or break the deal in business, so pay attention to the small details in your professional image, please. I’m talking about your watch, your belt, your pen, your work bag. Do invest in these little fellas because, once you’ve got them, they’ll serve you well for many years. The other important but inexpensive players include socks, hosiery, umbrella and business card holder. And if you haven’t already got a full-length mirror at home, get one now. Always have a quick top-to-toe check before you leave the house, so you can spot any errors before other people do that for you.
6. Time to update your hair?
You update your technical skills periodically, don’t you? So when was the last time you updated your hairstyle? If it’s more than 3 years ago, it’s time to think about refreshing your hairstyle. A flattering and up-to-date hairstyle can drastically transform your appearance and yet it doesn’t cost a lot of money.
7. Wear good shoes
For men, make sure your shoes complement the rest of your outfit. For women, the same advice applies but I will also add this: make sure you can walk confidently in them. Nothing wrecks an image faster than someone who walks uncomfortably in her heels.
When you apply these 7 key ingredients together, you will have a solid template for building a professional and stylish image for you. You’ll no longer have to worry about whether you look ‘right’ or not. You’ll feel comfortable knowing that you project the most effective image of you. Now, doesn’t that sound like a great recipe for success?
What are your key ingredients for a professional image? I’d love to hear from you.