Dress for Persuasion Success

There’s an old saying you’re probably familiar with – Dress for Success. I can remember hearing that when I graduated from college and entered the business world more than 25 year ago. The basic premise was encouraging you to dress the part and feel the part. In other words, dress like a successful CEO and you’ll carry yourself like one, and then maybe, just maybe one day you’ll be a successful CEO.

That’s not bad advice because a study of persuasion confirms that dressing the part goes a long way when it comes to authority. The principle of authority tells us people defer to those who are viewed as experts and those who possess specialized knowledge. In times of uncertainty the power of authority is magnified greatly.
One way people make quick decisions about a person comes through something known as the “trappings of success.” Think about this picture for just a moment – a man wearing a well tailored navy blue suit, pressed white shirt with a power tie, a Rolex watch, gold pen and polished wing tipped shoes. Would you assume that man is successful? Most people do. The rapid thoughts that lead to that conclusion might go something like this – That’s an expensive looking suit, he probably paid someone polish those shoes, that’s definitely an expensive watch. He must have money or make a lot of money. He might be a VP or CEO.
Maybe those aren’t your exact thoughts but you know what I mean. Despite mom telling is to never judge a book by its cover we do make judgments about people based on dress. Expensive = Money = Success.
Several months ago Cathrine Moestue wrote about this and I’ve decided to reinforce the concept because of something that caught my attention a few weeks prior to her post. I’d left a restaurant after lunch wearing a nice sports coat and slacks. As I waited at the cross walk I looked left and right and saw no cars were coming so I crossed even though the signal flashed the don’t walk sign. There were two men casually dressed on the other side of the street who clearly had no intentions of crossing. However, as the saw me cross they had a momentary look that told me there were now contemplating doing the same. Seconds later it was evident they took my actions as their cue because they too crossed against the light.
They might deny they did so because I was well dressed as would most people. After all, what does wearing a suit have to do with persuading people to jaywalk? To test the theory about dress impacting authority and people’s actions, some social scientists arranged for a man to cross the street against the light and watched to see how many people would follow his lead over the course of a day. The man was dressed in casual attire one day and on another day they performed the same experiment only this time the man crossing against the light wore a suit.
Here’s the result – 350% more people took a cue from the man in the suit and jaywalked, breaking the law. You can literally say they followed suit when he was in a suit! I found it interesting that the two men I saw took their cue from me when I was dressed very business-like.
It needs to be stated that a suit may not always be the right attire to persuade because the audience needs to be considered. I work for an insurance company and one product we sell is farm insurance. The manager of that department rightly shared once that a company representative visiting a farm in a suit would not have as much credibility as the representative who dressed more like the farmer. Likewise, a tuxedo might indicate money but no one wears a tux to the office.
When considering your audience you want them to have a connection with you so dressing in a similar manner but one step up can assure you get the benefit of that bonding and an air of authority. If you happen to be overdressed you can usually find ways to tone it down a bit – like removing a tie or coat – but if you’re underdressed it’s hard, sometimes impossible to recover.
So here’s my persuasion advice: next time you go to an important meeting or presentation make sure you get the full benefit of authority by making the right choice of clothing. Doing so will add to your persuasive abilities but failing to do this might just be the reason you hear “No” instead of “Yes.”

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

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