Survival Guide: Angie Michael (expanded interview)

You've heard "image is everything." Angie Michael says it's true. The president of Image Resource Group Inc. of Falls Church, Va., Michael is an image consultant who has helped people with everything from professional dress to business etiquette to presentation skills for more than 20 years. She's the author of "Best Impressions in Hospitality" and coauthor of "Business Casual Made Easy," and she understands the hidden messages of substance that are conveyed by style. Michael talked with Managing Editor Evamarie Socha about what people wear to work? and why it matters.


WT: Define "professional image."

Michael: Your image is the way you communicate in business. You need to dress appropriately for your audience, your own physical characteristics, for the occasion, and you need to have your clothing and image as another business tool. This is nonnegotiable. In the first 30 seconds of meeting, people make assumptions about you, and the communications is nonverbal. In about 55 seconds, people make assumptions on nonverbal messages: the way you look, how you act and the tone of your voice.

WT: Why is image important?

Michael: In many situations, when you meet someone face to face, whether you're aware of it or not, you are judging them consciously and unconsciously. ? You have to mirror the dress of those that you work with. That is how we feel comfortable with each other. When someone is dressed like you, [that is]a tremendous equalizer.

WT: How big a role does image play in a person's job?

Michael: Your resume will open the door for you. The right look will not give you the job, but the wrong look will certainly keep you out of it. [Today], there are double the number of candidates for any job. In a corporation that has your resume and 10 more with the same qualifications and experience, the way you look and behave will get you the job?or not.

WT: What are the trends right now in business attire?

Michael: For men, the business suit is back. A two-button suit will be with you forever, but if you are going to buy a new suit, get a three-button suit. And please remember not to button the third button.

Men need five shirts that are accepted internationally. A white shirt is the dressiest, most powerful look. Then light blue, that will give you a more approachable look. Next is French blue, which makes you even more approachable and creative. Then there is white with stripes, but they must be fine stripes on white background. And the latest and newest is light gray.

The lighter the shirt, the more dressy the outfit. The deeper the color of the shirt, the less formal the outfit. The highest contrast among the shirt, tie and coat gives people more brightness, which makes people look more powerful. When the contrast is less, it makes you look more approachable and friendly.

WT: And for women?

Michael: Again there's the suit. But I warn women: In the United States, pantsuits have become almost the norm. However, if you must do business internationally, be careful, because not in every country and not at every level will you be well dressed in pantsuits.

The good news for women is that we don't have to wear navy blue. I call teal the navy of the new millennium. With teal, you can choose many colors: purple, royal blue, pine green. Be sure it's a color that compliments your skin tone. Have an image consultant recommend the right shades for you. Please don't wear light gray or beige, because you'll blend into the background. Wear red for presentations, and avoid bright colors in one-on-one meetings.

For men, I recommend wearing a tie with some type of red when they do a presentation. Red gets attention. Yellow is a color the eye can only see for a little time. For women, use a little bit of yellow as an accent, but not a yellow suit, unless you are going to work with kids.

WT: So no more business casual?

Michael: Business casual has changed. Many companies are tightening the guidelines. People went overboard ? they forgot it was business first, then casual. The corporate world is getting more formal, so companies are defining guidelines and making them more conservative, or they're limiting casual dress to Fridays, or eliminating it all together. For contractors, before any meeting of any type, call and ask what is appropriate attire for the company. ? My guess is we will always have some type of comfortable attire, but it can be more business, more professional than not.

WT: When it comes to the federal government, is there a particular dressing or image rule?

Michael: The higher you go in government, the more dressy the people. If you go to the top managers in government, most of them are very well dressed.

WT: How does that translate to the contractor?

Michael: Many times the contractor needs to know who the audience is, because sometimes they need to meet with the decision-makers. It's OK to ask what is the dress code for meetings of this nature. ? I recommend to people, first of all ask what people wear: suits or jackets? Ties? That is a key item. .. Think to yourself: Who is your audience? What is the purpose of your message today: building rapport? Selling ideas? Building trust? And based on that, choose your clothing.

WT: What mistakes are out there?

Michael: Pay attention to grooming. Be sure your shirt is well pressed. Whatever you put around your neck should be in good condition. Eye contact happens in that oval that is your face, the lapel of your jacket, your shirt and your tie. I see a lot of short ties that are not close to the beltline. Please never wear short sleeves with a jacket ? please don't! Or short pants, your pants have to go lower to break in the front of your shoe.

Pay attention to your shoes. They need to be clean and in good condition. If you must walk a lot, get rubber shoes to walk back and forth to Metro; but when you get to a meeting, put on your shoes that are well polished and in good condition.

For men: be sure your pants are at your waist, not below. Be sure your suit fits correctly. You must be able to button your jacket and have enough space to breathe.
Never wear black suits, they are not appropriate for daytime: only gray and navy. Olives, browns and earth tones are appropriate for second meetings, but not for first meetings with your client. Keep your jacket on in the meeting, and don't remove it without [seeing] what the rest of the team is doing.

For women: Put your jacket on for six occasions: meetings; interviews for job, press, whatever it is; to meet a client for the first time; to go to court; when making presentations; and when you work in an office where people drop in unannounced. First impression is critical. Be sure your neckline is never below two fingers above your cleavage. The less skin you show, the more powerful you look, and that goes for men and women.

Women need to wear hose, even if you don't like it. No sandals, no open toes.

Pay attention to jewelry. Be sure your earrings don't move or make noise. Whenever your jewelry moves, you lose the attention of the people who are listening to you. Their eye contact is completely distracted. Keep all of those things for the evening. Same with lace and all the sexy fabrics and tight clothes.

WT: What is a good dressing mantra to follow?

Michael: Look in mirror and ask yourself: Am I ready to meet the highest-level person in my client's network or organization without having to make any type of apology? If there is anything in the mirror you have a question about, leave it out. ? You need to look the part and dress the part. If you want the job, you need to look the part. If you want the promotion, you need to look promotable. If you want respect, you need to dress equally or better than the industry standards.

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