What is the difference between a suited-up business executive who carries a high-quality leather portfolio into a networking event and a leather-clad motorcycle rider carrying a custom-painted helmet into a motorcycle rally? The answer is, there is no difference. That executive and that bad-a– biker are one and the same, with the same desire to impress in either environment.

You see, this person understands—in either situation—that first impressions are a fact of life when more than one person is a factor in a person-to-person situation. And she understands that first impressions are influenced by attire, grooming, personal presence, eye contact, posture, comportment, and how you move from point A to point B. Furthermore, it takes no more than a few seconds to garner an impression of someone while it may take years to undo that impression…if the chance even presents itself to do so after the first meeting.

In a professional environment—even in the era of “casual Fridays”—a suit and high-quality accoutrements communicate an image of success, professionalism, respect, financial well-being, confidence, and social class—whether these characteristics are true of the person or not. Simply by how you look and “come across” to others influences how other people perceive you to be and how they react to you. Similarly, in the motorcycle environment, a complete leather outfit from jacket to gloves to boots and a custom-painted helmet convey an image of seriousness, safety, experience, pride, confidence, and individualism—again, whether these characteristics are true of the person or not.

Given the reality of first impressions—which directly relate to our preconceived notions of who people must be based on how they look—the importance of choosing to set an impression cannot be overstated. So how do you set an impression when first impressions are seemingly uncontrollable? You learn what creates impressions to begin with. Then you evaluate the characteristics that sway a person’s perceptions one way or another. You consider the environment in which those perceptions hold true. Finally, you choose whether or not to present yourself in the manner that generates the impression you want others to have of you.

In other words, learn what is appropriate for a situation, then choose to come across in the appropriate way. Or not.

Here are two examples of situations where first impressions affect business or personal success outcomes.

Situation 1: The landscaping client. A truck pulls up to a homeowner’s driveway and from out of the truck come two people in dirty, worn attire and unkempt grooming. One person takes a final puff of a cigarette and throws the remainder onto the homeowner’s walkway. The homeowner, watching the brief scene, decides right then and there that this is not the crew he will even consider hiring. After the homeowner contacts another company, a van pulls up to the homeowner’s driveway. From out of the van come four people dressed in matching T-shirts with the company logo on the shirts, matching-colored work pants, and neatly-groomed appearances. One person carries a metal clipboard case and all four walk confidently up to the homeowner’s front door. Before anyone speaks, the homeowner makes the decision to spend the time to review the potential project with the crew and to ask for a work quotation. The choice of which landscaping company got past the first-impression stage for the homeowner made the difference between which company got the opportunity to do business with that homeowner.

But, it’s a LANDSCAPING company, you think. They get dirty and sweaty when they work. Well, yes they do. But when a crew first arrives at a potential client’s doorstep to estimate a project and earn new business, the more professional they look upon first impression the more likely they will be to open a window of opportunity for gaining business. A T-shirt and work pants will not be professional attire for a recent college graduate who will interview for a banking position, yet remember what I noted in an above paragraph: learn what is appropriate for the situation you face.

Situation 2: The after-hours technology community networking social. It’s a social. It’s after business hours. It’s the technology community. Tech folks are casual-attire folks, you think. Blue jeans, a motorcycle-logoed T-shirt, and “tennis shoes” should be just fine to wear. Think again.

Assuming you plan to attend the event to capture the attention of a potential client or secure a job interview, the operative word in the event description is “networking”. Networking = meeting people = making impressions and influencing perceptions. Managers and human resources people I meet from technology companies suggest that you dress “above” the level of the norm in order to be perceived favorably—especially when you are the one making the first impression on them. The white shirt and blue suit of a legal professional is probably not necessary for such an event, but good grooming, clean and pressed clothing, clean shoes, and presentable business cards or notebook and pen go a long way towards affecting that first impression.

A more subtle, yet equally important message is to not get angry or annoyed when you choose to be inappropriate to a situation and generate an unfavorable impression. Your choices set the perceptions others have of you. For example:

Situation 3: What happened to “ma’am”? I work on a computer from a home office a great deal of time. Baggy military-style pants, old shirts, and high-top “basketball shoes” are my dress norm when I am away from clients. When I run quick errands to my local post office I do not bother to change clothes. The staff is used to seeing me during the day and know of my frequent business with them. One day recently a temporary postal employee from another branch substituted at “my” branch. It happened to be a day when I stopped by to pick up my mail after I facilitated a workshop for a client. I was in my best “client suit”. When that temporary employee served me she called me “ma’am”. I looked over at one of my familiar customer reps at the next window and—jokingly—asked, “Why don’t YOU call me that when I come in?” His response: “I’ve never seen you that way until now.” Wow! I started to feel hurt and annoyed, then stopped myself right away. Of course he did not see me as “ma’am” in my dressed-down state. I had to remind myself that my choice of attire when I run errands is just that—my choice. If I choose a certain look, though, I’d better be prepared to accept the consequences of other people’s perceptions of the look. Have I changed how I dress to run local errands? No. I know what it is I want to accomplish on these errands and I make my choices accordingly.

Take first impressions of you into your own hands. Learn what is deemed appropriate to the situation to which you aspire. Evaluate your choices for the impressions you can set. Make your choices based on what you want to accomplish or achieve. Then set yourself up to impress.

Author's Bio: 

Sylvia helps people SHOW they're as great as they SAY they are. She works with individuals and organizations (businesses, associations, non-profits, educational, and government) to make their "people image" (interpersonal skills) match - or exceed - their organizational image for greater profit, more clients, and a higher degree of personal and professional success. Sign up for monthly content and bring Sylvia to your organization at http://sylviahenderson.com. Blog: http://blog.springboardtraining.com. Twitter: @SuccessLanguage.