The Power of Presence

I am writing this piece from a beautiful and elegant hotel in Arizona where my team and I are working with one of our clients. I notice the packaging of the amenities. Simple things like a toothbrush, the soap and the cream and sugar are beautifully packaged and presented. The room is tastefully furnished and meticulously made up. The linens are crisp and white. I wonder to myself:

  • Would the amenities be less effective if not packaged at all?
  • Would the bed be less comfortable if it wasn't prepared to look so inviting?

And yet, I so appreciate these little touches. Am I a snob? I don't think so. I think I appreciated the detail and care people who are proud of their offering take in its presentation. In the same way I appreciate how a chef presents a meal even though the food would be no less nutritious or tasty if slopped onto a plate instead of being artfully presented. While nutrition and taste certainly motivate our eating, it's the way the food looks that truly impacts our experience of it.

Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, writes that "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances." A recent Schumpeter article in The Economist argues that appearance and other superficial characteristics still play a large part in the way we experience and even evaluate leaders. Appearance impacts the appointment and promotion of leaders both in politics and in corporations. The article also mentions Malcolm Gladwell's finding during his research for Blink, that 30% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are 6 feet 2 inches or taller, compared with 3.9% of the American population. And, male CEOs with the deepest voices giving presentations to investors earned $187,000 a year more than the average.

The article sees this predisposition to particular appearances as a form of stereotyping beyond which he would have thought society had already evolved. But is appearance a shallow stereotype or is there something more valid to it?

Clothing, appearance and the sound of one's voice are part of one's image. Who we truly are as individuals, our values and behaviors, are our identity. Of course identity is far more important than image. However, our image (the way we look, sound and dress) is our most immediate interface with the rest of the world. Clothing, appearance and the sound of one's voice are not in and of themselves indicative of a person's character or competence. Many a charlatan has used appearance to mislead their victims. However, the ways we appear, dress and speak, akin to a brand by which a product is known, are tools by which a person projects their own self-worth to others.

Anyone of us who has either given or received a gift understands the importance of the wrapping. Giving a woman an expensive item of jewelry in a used paper bag does not have the same effect as presenting it to her in a blue Tiffany box! This is not because the box is, in and of itself valuable; but it does amplify and project the gift's importance. The frame around a beautiful painting is not part of the artist's work; but it can make a marked difference to the way an observer experiences the painting. The packaging of a gift or the framing of a picture projects to the observer the value you attach to the gift or the work of art and this value that you attach to them is the starting point from which others experience the gift or painting. In the same way, appearance, clothing and voice are the packaging by which others experience how valuable you believe you are. This inevitably impacts their experience of you (certainly in the first stages of your interaction with them).

Appearance, clothing and voice are the ways we present ourselves to the world. They are like the makeup a woman uses to amplify her beauty. Of course people can use makeup, clothing and appearance to disguise who they really are and to project an image of someone different from their real selves. When a person does that, though, others intuitively experience their artificiality, and they project mistrust rather than attraction.

How we present and project ourselves amplifies the energy of our personalities or inhibits it. This is as natural as the very idea of aesthetics. We are attracted by beauty and repelled by ugliness. People of character who also look and sound beautiful immediately attract our attention. The same applies to powerful people who look powerful, smart people who look smart and sportsmen who look sporty. We open to them and are curious to get to know them. Provided how we look is aligned with who we are and is appropriate to the environment in which we are operating, our image enhances the way people experience our identity. Don't give up on branding and packaging. It has been a part of the way we interact for thousands of years, and may yet be for thousands to come.


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