“Clothes are powerful things,” wrote George Orwell. He knew how invisible he was to society while dressing like a tramp and living down and out in London and Paris. The only thing that gave him away was his Eton College accent, revealing that he had attended (by way of scholarship) the poshest boarding school in the world. Even if we have the “intellectual horsepower” of Orwell, our message can get muddled by our presentation. Style, unfortunately, matters, and we can all use a little more polish.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and expert on gender and workplace issues, and the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, ran a study of 4,000 professionals across the U.S. and 300 leaders. She found that there is a check list that bosses look for in grooming and promoting their staff—how well a person presents oneself—from speaking, dress, communication prowess—determined the chances for advancement. Unfortunately, as Hewlett's research shows, many women lose out on these opportunities, because they lack executive presence and don’t bother learning this very attainable skill.
Hewlett told Big Think:
Executive presence or EP is simply what you signal to the world, what you telegraph to the world. In terms of first, your gravitas. Do you really know your stuff cold? Do you give the impression that you're three questions deep in your field of expertise? Perhaps do you have intellectual horsepower? How do you signal that? That's the gravitas piece. Secondly, do you have really serious communication skills? Can you get your ideas across? I mean can you be heard, because no matter how profound your gravitas, if you can't somehow get it across it becomes dead in the water. And then finally presentation of self; the way you dress; your body movement; the way you stand and walk. All of this is incredibly critical in allowing your gravitas again to get across.
Hewlett herself had to spend years learning executive presence. In her interview with Big Think, she shares her personal story of going from living in an impoverished coal mining town in South Wales to being a student at Cambridge University, where her working-class accent worked against her. Hear Hewlett tell her own story and how she transformed the way she presented herself: