In the past year, I have gone to a lot of networking events. More than I can count. Being so focused on the event and the fact that I am not a natural networker, I tried to look nice but never really paid a huge amount of attention to how I dressed.
And then I went to a seminar run by James of Insider Foundry. In that session, there was a really brief period of time in which James talked about dress code.
You know, there’s that saying: Walk the talk. And there’s that other saying: Fake it til you make it. James was pretty clear that if you want to impress people you have to meet them on their level. Sales is psychology, after all. It’s your own psychology and it’s public psychology.
James made a point of telling us that one of his metrics was how he was dressed. If he meets a prospect, he makes notes of what he wore, how the meeting went, and any significant things that come to mind. He uses it as a metric to improve on.
It’s obvious, right? Anything you do has an impact on someone else, because a meeting is a point of connection. It’s obvious once it’s brought to your attention. It is something that I had neglected to consider.
I realised, eventually, that my preconceptions about people, society, and cliche had totally obscured my true observations. And my observational skills are extremely good – better than most. It’s a muscle you have to exercise, though, and I had let mine sit on the couch and drink beer instead of working out. I had no excuse for it.
So in the interests of improving everything about what I was doing, I switched on the old observation musculature.
The first lesson I learned is that women dress far more informally than men.
At networking events, it is extremely rare that you will see a woman in a suit. Extremely rare, even if she’s a lawyer. These days, the women who wear suits tend to be high ranking employees in government, finance, or business analysis.
Female corporate wear is extraordinary. Almost anything goes. You can get away with your cleavage out and a tight skirt, provided you have a jacket over the top. Your weekend summer dress will pass muster if you pair it with heels and good jewellery and do your hair nicely.
And fake nails (sorry ladies, but anything that includes shellac and epoxy resin are fake nails in my realm) are de rigeur.
The second lesson I learned is that informally dressed women do not talk to men in suits. And vice versa.
So, therefore, literally 90% of the women at events I go to end up speaking with other women who look much the same as they do. I have even been to breakfasts where the men (and me) are at one end of the room, and all of the women are at the other end of the room.
It shocked the shit out of me, honestly. The women were talking about kids and life. The men were talking business.
The third lesson I learned is that informally dressed men do not identify as being ‘traditional’.
Yes, this is a cliche. It is also true. Any man who does not wear a suit or tie, or wears jeans and a t-shirt under a jacket; or some combination of the above, does not identify himself as ‘traditional’. Men actually have a really limited range of appropriate workwear, when you really get down to nuts and bolts.
Those men who wear polo shirts are always tradies of some kind. And the men who are in pants that don’t quite fit, and haven’t really brushed their hair, and either don’t shave or are a bit on the tubby side, tend to be in IT.
Goddamn those stereotypes. But they are stereotypes for a reason. The typing exists.
The fourth lesson is that those dressed more formally than you talk to you only if they know you.
This is why having well-connected friends is a total bonus if you both go to the same events. Those well connected people do tend to dress more formally, I noticed. And their introduction is a segue past your appearance.
The biggest thing I learned from this little round of observation is that, even if I have signature Pixies on my clothing, if I want big clients I need to stop looking like the gaggles of women. I don’t want to talk to them. I want to talk to the men who are all talking business.
All of a sudden I became a bigoted snob.
I was making assumptions about wealth, position, and class. It’s a massive stereotype, right? The point is that I noticed that I had started to apply the same criteria. That was a huge learning, and one that I couldn’t easily switch off.
Sure, I joke around at home telling my husband that I’m bourgeois and he’s working class. But this was a whole new level of filtering. It fascinated me. So, it was time to play.
Enter, the experiment.
Armed with my ‘control’ round of observations, I decided to run an experiment. Every networking event I went to in the following months I went to in a formal skirt suit of Italian wool, paired with conservative, Mary Jane court heels and stockings.The jacket is lined with ivory silk.
I didn’t even get too outlandish with the shirt underneath. Instead, I opted for conservative, draped crepe in cool colours like subdued purples. They were options you don’t typically see on young women, who are all in a certain style of fitted corporate shirt.
The only thing about my figure you could see, really, was my calves. There were no boobs or shapely bum, or even really a waist, on show.
As far as accessories, I went full conservative. I wore earrings and thus no necklace. I only wore my wedding rings, and no bracelets. I cleaned up my nails (no varnish), kept the makeup downplayed and natural. And even though I have a really shitty canvas handbag, it’s black so it didn’t really matter too much because it blended in.
This appearance is so unlike me that I sent selfies of myself to my husband (who was already at work), with captions like, Look it’s Satan’s nanny.
The difference at the event was immediately apparent.
The first thing I noticed is that women dressed less formally did not approach me.
In fact, there was a distinct eyeing off, a covert assessment, and a determination that I wasn’t their type. It was almost as if that whole sector closed ranks and wasn’t particularly interested in talking to me. Maybe they thought I was a lawyer.
The second thing I noticed is that formally dressed business men greeted me as an equal.
People in suits talk to other people in suits. And if you’re a woman in a suit, those who don’t know you make a point of introducing themselves. It made the entire process of meeting my target market far easier. And I had far less resistance to talking about my field of specialisation.
Allow me to qualify that statement. By “less resistance”, I actually mean “greater engagement”. Conversations were more active and interested, rather than a passing hello because you’re networking and that’s what you do.
The third thing I noticed is that information was freely shared.
These formally dressed men in suits were really keen to share their knowledge, and did so freely. Barriers that are very often in place in networking events in Adelaide include a resistance to sharing knowledge, because of the intense fear of giving things away amongst certain age groups and social sets. Those barriers were not so evident when one looked like a peer.
The fourth thing is that other people introduced themselves to me.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, I know. But there is a huge difference between going to an event and being introduced to people, or having to break the ice yourself for a long time, to walking into a place and people coming up to you and wanting your time.
This particular change was validation of the walk the talk value; of fake it til you make it unlike anything else. It’s because you have to be worth talking to. Networking events don’t run for very long and you can’t talk to everyone. So when someone makes it a point of approaching you, they have determined that you are probably someone valuable enough to spend time on.
The fifth thing is that the nature of the contacts changed.
Instead of walking away from an event with a really broad range of cards, from dog walkers and florists to massage therapists, I started to acquire cards from lawyers, accountants, and directors of similar companies. In fact, at one event I ended up in conversation over breakfast with three people from major banks, and several small accounting firms. These people are in my sights; the dog walkers are not.
Looking like the right person removes unnecessary barriers.
When you look like a peer, you are treated like a peer. This means that selling your services into another business can be a bit easier. It’s also easier to validate your business in their world, because they are less reserved about talking to you.
So has it been a success?
So far the experiment has been a success. However, I haven’t yet tested further permutations. For example, how far does dressing down go before it affects the experience of the networking event? What colours are better than others? Are there certain styles that result in different outcomes?
There is a lot of truth to the notion that the way you dress affects your outcome. And based on what I’ve learned so far, all I can do is keep experimenting, and keep working the things that … well, work.
It’s a fascinating study. And one that I recommend to anyone, to study how to even out the playing field of the market that you’re after.