Every single time I do a presentation on the importance of professional presence, someone in the audience invariably crosses his or her arms and leans back in the chair, occasionally rolling the eyes. Whenever I have a conversation about the subject with colleagues or acquaintances, there's always a comment along the lines of, "This really doesn't matter." I've heard it a gazillion times. "What matters is the ability of the person, not what he or she looks like," someone will say. "I've worked with all kinds of people, and I can assure you I've never cared how they dressed."
I have to tell folks again and again that professional presence has nothing to do with how brilliant a person is, how skilled, how talented, how enormously capable he or she may be. It has to do with being in context with one's surroundings. It has to do with how one is perceived. If I had time in most conversations, I'd explain that while one out of ten people with whom we interact might care about how we present ourselves, that one person might be extremely important--someone we need to influence or whose influence we want.
Can anyone seriously tell me they never consider the outward appearance and presentation of people they deal with? If you're a business professional and you're talking with a group of your peers, and one of them has a slight body odor and drops the f-bomb in every other sentence, do you truly not have a thought as to how this person is being perceived? Surely someone in the group will be offended or disgusted, or completely tune out, having decided this is not the kind of person with whom they want to associate. Your colleagues will walk away, most likely wondering why in the world the person can't bathe and wear deodorant and why they can't manage to complete a sentence without being crude and vulgar.
"That's an extreme example," someone might say. Yes, it is, but I use it to highlight the point that everyone judges by appearance or behavior. EVERYONE. If you wear a $1500 suit into a biker bar, there is going to be a judgment from the bartender and the patrons as to what kind of person you are. In the very same way, if you send a thank-you email to another professional and the written response is, "Your welcome," there really are some of us who have the kind of brief internal reaction that occurs when nails are scraped against a chalkboard. If it so happens that you know how to dress professionally but you act like a complete jerk, do you honestly think your behavior should not be considered against your skills and abilities? If you go to a business lunch and the person on the other side of the table practically puts his face into the plate and inhales, are you telling me you have no thought about that at all? Of course you do. People have reactions, even unconscious ones. Guess what? Some people make unfavorable judgments based on what they can see and hear. "Not ready for a promotion." "Insensitive fool." "I'm not talking to him about that habit. I'll just avoid him."
Your appearance, your behavior, and your personality and character strengths present you. Of course we all want to be considered only for our abilities and knowledge, but you can't wear skill. You can't walk around with a "Person of Integrity" sign on your back. You've got to open the door so people want to connect with the things you want them to see. Manage the judgment. Make the open door inviting. Once people are inside, they can see all your good internal qualities, and that's what you're going for.
As much as it is in your power, be exceptional in every aspect of your professional life. All it takes is one person who is impressed with the attention you pay to all the details to give you an opportunity that others, who may be better educated or have more experience, won't receive because they have shut the door.