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We’ve all had a teacher or parent say, “It’s what’s inside that counts.”

It may be true from a spiritual perspective. But that doesn’t apply to the job market, or dating, or consulting, or any other situation where people are making decisions about who gets which opportunities.

As someone who has struggled with weight, and who is aging at what seems to be a shocking rate, it scares and depresses me to realize just how much appearance matters.

Janice Hurley-Trailor, known as the Image Expert, says, “The attitude of ‘people are going to judge me on the quality of my work’ is an easy mistake to make when you’ve held great pride in your academic or professional success. But if you’re in a career that involves others giving you opportunities or taking them away, you have to think about the way you present yourself.”

Hurley-Trailor cites a Yale University study that determined the top two common denominators for successful people. It wasn’t IQ or education. Instead, the top two qualities needed to ensure success were:

1. The ability to accurately see how others perceive you

2. The ability to move or motivate others forward to where you want them to go.

You don’t have to be rail thin or wear Armani. But, like it or not, your look, wardrobe and body language are part of your professional presence.

Hurley-Trailor, who does image workshops and works one-on-one with clients, says, “The disconnect comes when we stop noticing how others are reacting to us.”

Hurley-Trailor says, “Our energy and the way we hold ourselves has a huge impact on how others perceive us. We might have developed some poor nervous habits or we might have stopped bothering to make good eye contact or practice good listening skills. Many people have no idea how sour or unhappy their facial expressions are until they see themselves in a photo or on video.”

Look at your holiday pics and videos, do you see someone who looks competent and confident?

In this competitive job market, the right image can help you get a job and protect you from losing one.

Hurley-Trailor cites a recent client, an attorney employed with a large law firm that had laid off 85 people. He was a Notre Dame grad, bilingual and had gotten good feedback over the last two years, but he was still concerned he might be the next casualty. So he took more seriously remarks about his “casual Friday” attire and his habit of only wearing a suit when he was going to court.

“Hurley-Trailor says, “At only 5 feet 6 inches in height, he was lacking in natural strength and presence – so he spent some time with me and really stepped it up.”

The response was so positive once he started dressing more professionally on a consistent basis, he not only kept his job but it gave him the confidence to apply for a position with the Justice Department which had been a lifelong dream. He got the job.

Hurley-Trailor says, “It’s not self-absorbed or narcissistic to take the time to understand how you are perceived. When you get good at it, you can forget about it. You don’t have that voice in your head wondering if you look right. It actually allows you to spend more time focusing on someone else.”

Humans are visual; we can ignore it, or adjust accordingly.