Deborah Lee
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Why Would I Want to Listen to You (and Then Buy From You)?


Non-verbal communication expert Sarah Setterfield looks at how our clothes can improve our chances of business success:

This is probably the question going through the mind of every person you are selling to and quite rightly so.  Can you stack the odds in your favour though?  Well I think you can…

I was reading an interesting piece of research recently which had been carried out a few years ago at New York University.  The purpose of the research was to examine the neuroscience of how people form impressions of others. This involved scanning people’s brains whilst they were looking at photographs of different people.

Afterwards, the subject was asked for their overall impressions of each person.

Scientists identified that two parts of the brain were involved which together help us form impressions of others. These brain regions organise information on the basis of its personal and subjective importance and summarise it into an ultimate score, a first impression.

Of course ‘what’s in it for me’ is a high priority for us all in such a work busy and time short world and so in forming those first impressions, we automatically order information about people on how important they are to our own needs and motivations. Our split-second reactions to other people are our internal measurements of their value to us.

In simple terms, meeting someone activates the same region of the brain responsible for assigning prices to objects.  After we’ve assigned a value to a person, we make the decision about how to adjust ourselves to that person: do we want to establish any kind of relationship or not? Are they likely to be of value to us or not?

So if that is the science what is its value to us on a daily basis? Well if you are in a sales role then it is huge!  There are three steps we all need to move through in order to get to the point where someone wants to do business with us.  Firstly we need to establish rapport – people buy people who are like them – if you’ve ever met someone trying to sell to you and taken an instant dislike to them then lack of rapport was the reason and nothing would convince you to buy from them.  Lack of rapport is a full stop to a relationship before it has even begun.  Secondly we need to establish trust (would you buy from someone you don’t trust?).  If you have ever watched the TV drama Hustle you will see that the key criteria in effecting any sort of con is to get them to trust you.

Once we have rapport and trust we swiftly move into the dance of building a good relationship.  These three steps can be completed almost instantly.  Again, if you have met someone and liked them straight away you have experienced just how fast this process can be.  Other times you need to waltz around one another until you find common ground on which you can build.  Finally, once a relationship is formed you can move into the ultimate phase of ‘getting down to business’.

Based on this study, one of the best ways to take advantage of a first impression is to give people a reason to trust and value you. Everything people see and experience of you in seconds goes towards their thought triggers.  Your appearance, facial expressions, body language and choice of words are all part of the decision-making process.

The ultimate goal is to give someone the impression that it’s not only OK for the other person to get to know you, but that it would be well worth their time.

If a picture paints a thousand words then your appearance can sway people in their first impression of you.  Let’s look at how this could work for you.

For many people the clothes they choose to wear each day are based around the following factors:

  • The weather
  • Their mood
  • What fits

None of these reasons take into account the fact that your choice of clothes represents your ‘costume’ for the day and therefore dictates the non-verbal messages you are conveying.

Imagine for a moment you are watching a period drama for the first time, with the sound muted.  How quickly are you able to establish who is who, where they sit in the hierarchy and who holds the most influence?  Very quickly I would suspect because we have learned how to identify these ‘costumes’ and recognise who is who.  We can also tell who loves upstairs and who works below stairs.  We can easily work out who the most influential person is in any given scene by watching their facial expressions and movement style.  You don’t have to be a scientist to understand this, it’s an innate skill we all possess; our ability to make sense of the world and work out who is who, what their value is to us and whether we should listen to them or not.

If you have ever been driving along a motorway in the fast lane when you’ve suddenly caught sight of a white 4X4 with fluorescent stripes along the side and slowed down and moved into the middle lane, then you have experienced firsthand how appearance affects our thoughts and then our behaviours.

Structured ClothesFormal business wear

Historically the more structure there is to your appearance the more formal and authoritative you are perceived to be.  This means the suit, shirt and tie (suit and shirt for women) represents the top of the tree in terms of appearance.  This is of course the staple dress code for many organisations and particularly for their sales team.  The typical messages conveyed by this look are Authoritative, Official, Credible, Persuasive, More formal, Precise, Stable.


Semi-StructuredSemi Formal business wear

Here the key garment is a jacket.  A man may wear a suit and shirt but no tie, or non-matching trousers and jacket.  A woman may wear a suit and collarless top, dress and jacket, non matching trousers/skirt and jacket.  Typically this dress code is called ‘Relaxed Business’.  The messages conveyed here are Formal, Influential, Accessible, Dependable, Consistent, Capable.


UnstructuredCasual business wear

This look may or may not have a collar but definitely doesn’t have a jacket (the power to any look is a jacket which is why people instinctively take their jacket off when they want to be seen as more friendly and approachable.  We see politicians do it all the time).  This category has a full spectrum of non-verbal messages: Approachable, Influential, Flexible, Co-operative, Informal, Conscientious, Relaxed, Available, Unofficial, Agreeable, Responsive, Casual, Easy-going.


Are you starting to see some potential areas of conflict here?  Is wearing your best bib and tucker the best thing to do?  Will it enhance your chances of getting from nowhere to a good business relationship fast or could it make it more difficult for you?  And we haven’t even talked about the psychology of colour and the critical body language elements to consider when selling!

My advice, each morning, forget about the weather, your mood and what fits.  Instead consider the impact you want to have.  Whatever you intention, others will pigeon-hole you before you have the opportunity to speak and if your non-verbal voice speaks a different language to your actual words then you could be risking your opportunity to influence and ultimately sell.

It is impossible for me to tell you what to wear as there are so many variables; who are you meeting, what is the desired outcome for you, what is the desired outcome for them, what is the product you are selling, what are the benefits of it (you need to create congruence between what your product offers and what your impact offers), where are you meeting, is there any history which needs taking into account etc., etc.

What I can do is ask you to consider, having read this, to think about the answers to the questions above and then apply them to the following scenarios.  Are there changes you would make now you have this new information?

  •  You have a sales meeting with a clinical customer in a hospital
  • A higher-level sales meeting with an NHS buyer in an office setting
  • A meeting with a sales manager from another pharmaceutical company to discuss a potential sales partnership

The objective and tone of the meeting would be different in each case.  Think about your appearance and consider what the messages are you want to convey and the outcome you would like to gain and the type of relationship you would need to establish.

The structure of your appearance has a language, the psychology of colour has a very loud voice and of course your body language.  Those silent indicators which sway people far more quickly that your voice ever could.

Is Your Image Fit for Business?  5 Top Tips to consider

  1. Clear your head of all clutter before you walk in to meet someone for the first time.  Your first impression to them is vital and you need to be in the right head-space to establish rapport and build trust.
  2. Your appearance speaks before you do.  What is the outcome you are looking for from your meeting?  The answer to that question decides the ‘costume’ you should adopt.
  3. Use colour to be distinctive, professional and trustworthy.  The brain likes colour and attaches more attention to it.  Wearing business camouflage (black, blue, grey, white) renders you almost invisible.
  4. Be clear to show your values through the way you look, sound and behave.  We are very good at spotting incongruence and where there is doubt trust disappears.
  5. Polish up your body language, it has four times more weight than your words.  Does your handshake inspire confidence?  Does your eye-contact inspire trust?  When you smile is it genuine?

Sarah Setterfield is the MD of Impact for Success and has worked with organisations for the past 12 years passing on her expertise in the subject of non-verbal communication.  She has designed a series of training programmes offering innovative and psychology based strategies to make an impact and develop a positive personal presence.  Sarah can be contacted through her website or by email at 

Leave a Comment:

Rachael Phillips says

Great post! I think a lot of it depends on the sector you’re working in too. Although, there’s no real excuse for meeting with anyone when it comes to business and being a scruff bug!

Mike says

Personally I dislike suits, I find that they make people disappear in the crowd. I can sit and watch all the office people going to work in the mornings or leaving in the afternoons and I get lost, no-one sticks out, they’re all in suits and smart clothing, all looking the same.

Again my personal view isn’t that someone in a suit is authoritative, credible or persuasive, but then I’ve always seen past appearances and I see the real person straight away, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re in a suit or a pair of jeans and a jumper.

Someone will get my respect when they deserve it and earn it, not from what they wear.

I find it quite disappointing that we still live in a world where we pre-judge people by their appearances.

    debsylee says

    I agree, Mike; it is very disappointing that we judge on appearances. But I guess this is why time and time again statistics show that ‘attractive’ people (particularly women) are more likely to be successful in job interviews, etc.

    When we can change that part of human nature and banish the ‘first impression’ impulse, then we’ll be getting somewhere 🙂

Jon Lee says

Great observations.

I am currently looking at changing the formal look to the informal look in order to achieve just this with my clients out here in Tuscany.

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