By Howard Tullman
We’re designed by nature to make lightning fast decisions (it’s all an outgrowth of our earliest “fight or flee” instincts which were developed for self-preservation and to keep the animals we encountered from eating us) and we make these kinds of snap judgments hundreds of times a day without even thinking twice about them or the process. It’s a visceral operation – mainly subconscious – and it’s far more accurate (in 99% of the cases) than many people and especially behavioral “experts” like to admit. Turns out you can judge a book by its cover. Just not in the ways we used to think about these things.
In the old days, if you wore crappy old clothes to go out and look for a new car (which might or might not have happened to have been clean), the car salesmen would size you up in a flash and basically either ignore you completely or hand you over to the newest and youngest guy on the floor. Today, if you wear those same old duds to go car shopping, after, of course, you’ve checked everything out first on the Internet, the salesmen can’t take the chance that you might be a major “in the money” code monkey or a mobile mega-millionaire and so they have to try to treat everyone who walks into the dealership in the same fashion.
But while this approach might be good rules of the road for the car sales biz and you can get away with dressing like a slob while you’re shopping; it’s a different story in any social or business context where the decisions you make in terms of your dress, your appearance, or any other aspect of how you elect to present yourself to the world) can influence – for better or worse – other people’s impressions of you, your values and your ability to make smart and appropriate choices. People don’t know how smart you are when they first meet you; but they can tell in a flash – based in some cases on nothing more than your appearance – that you’ve made some woefully bad choices sometime in the past. And it’s a very short hop from there to “I don’t care” or worse.
So we’re still judging books and people by their covers – we’re just drawing different kinds of conclusions from the data – less about economic circumstances or purchasing power and more about attitude, competence and overall good judgment. This is not to say that you’re not always free to ignore other people’s impressions and reactions and make your own choices; it’s just to remind you that these are, in fact, conscious or unconscious choices that you’re making and that all the choices we make come with consequences. And as you get older, you learn that who you are and what kind of life you get to live is largely the sum of all the choices – good or bad – that you’ve made along the way.
I recently wrote about one part of this problem in connection with the question of what to wear when you go on stage for your Demo Day pitch. See http://www.inc.com/howard-tullman/does-your-demo-rock-how-to-fix-that.html. I thought that your team’s t-shirt was probably the safest bet of all, but mainly I was trying to suggest that you stay within the basic guidelines and avoid overdoing it in any direction – you don’t want the way you’re dressed to become a distraction. And the last thing you want to happen as you walk on to the stage is to have anyone looking at you rather than listening to you.
Crazy clothes, hiked-up heels, and bushy beards all subtract substance, attention and focus from your story. I realize that there are plenty of smart and savvy people who choose to dress or wear their hair in a certain style, but in this narrow context, I think that a fashion faux pas can start you off with a crowd that wonders if you’re serious. Why would you want to start with that extra monkey on your back? This is a steep enough slope as it is – starting out in a rut of your own making – makes no sense. You should “make your statement” some other time and place.
And there’s another monkey that it also makes sense to avoid if you can. Good people (that is to say most consumers) are somewhat patient, largely understanding, and – most importantly – inclined to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt. But when you present yourself in a fashion that feels more like desperation than design or style; and you put it out there with an “I dare you to say something” attitude; you forfeit the benefit of the doubt.
Now the stakes are changed and you’ve got to do everything you’re doing really well because you’ve essentially given up the standard margin for error. If you’re gonna be right up in my face; you better not slip up because it’s a very slippery slope and a very long road back. Make the slightest mistake and the person standing opposite you changes in an instant from “Get Along John” to “Judgmental Joe”. People go from neutral to negative in these situations in seconds. We’ve all been there and done this ourselves.
So if you’re gonna have tats all over your body or nose rings in your nostrils; just understand that you’re walking a tightrope of your own making. On any given day, you can make it across with no problems, but you’ve made the job a lot harder and more perilous than it needs to be. And don’t think that it’s easy to fix the situation or repair the damage with a smile and a few sweet words. You can’t talk your way out of problems that you behave yourself into.
Howard A. Tullman serves as the CEO of 1871 and the General Managing Partner for G2T3V, LLC and for the Chicago High Tech Investors, LLC; he is Executive Chairman and a Director of Music Dealers and a Director of SnapSheet, PackBack Books, VEHCON, and BCV Evolve. He is a Board Advisor to Hightower Advisors, The Starter School, Built in Chicago and many other start-ups in Chicago. He was previously a Trustee of WTTW in Chicago and the New York Academy of Art in New York. He serves as the Chairman of the Endowment Committee of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, and an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston and at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.