Personal image plays a vital role in our lives. No matter how much we might deny it, we make judgments about people dozens of times a day based on their appearance - it is human nature to do so.
You might not care that the woman sitting opposite on the bus is thinking "That shirt should have been left in the souvenir store in Gran Canaria", but you would probably care a good deal more if the same thoughts were running through the head of the person deciding whether you should get a promotion.
It's not just dress (and that includes grooming) that influences what others think of us, but the way we conduct ourselves - our body language. While our clothes are something we can see in the mirror, the way we sit at our desks, or wave our hands when speaking, are not. But it is these things that might be working against us just when we most want to put our best foot forward.
Image could be a decisive factor in why some people are promoted while others who feel they are better at the job are not. Much of what people think of us is determined by what we communicate in a non-verbal way. It is estimated that verbal content accounts for only 7 per cent of the message, the tone of voice 38 per cent, and the visual aspects 55 per cent.
If you tell the headteacher you are confident about the new role she wants to give you, but fiddle with your papers and fail to look her in the eye, chances are she won't believe you.
Judi James, an image and presentation skills consultant, says: "Words take a definite back seat when compared to the impact of vocal tone and the non-verbal images. If you say one thing and your body language gives out a contradictory message, it is the visual image that will be perceived as the truth - and the one that will be remembered longer."
Making our body language match what we mean might seem a daunting task, but there are many simple ways of making sure this happens. Cristina Stuart, managing director of London-based presentation skills consultancy SpeakEasy, runs courses on personal image. A key element is video recording participants to reveal how others see them. "Many people have absolutely no idea how they come across - they imagine they are perceived in a certain way, but often the reality is quite different," she says.
Clothes are the starting point: Polly Holman, secretary of the Federation of Image Consultants, says they should:
* Flatter you physically - your face, shape and bodyline
* Reflect your personality
* Be appropriate for the occasion
* Convey your message and authority
* Be current and up to date.
The final item is one some teachers should take particular note of, Holman says. "If you're in front of a class of teenagers, who are incredibly fashion-conscious, and you are not current, you're going to be laughed at. It also conveys the fact that you haven't moved forward, therefore you're not taking a modern approach."
The first step to improving your image is to open your wardrobe doors and determine what is current and whether those clothes project the desired image. "You need two large bin bags, then go through and take out those items that don't fit, don't suit or are tired," Holman advises. The word she keeps returning to is "appropriate". Dressing appropriately does not call for haute couture or, horror of horrors, "power dressing", which might have been all the rage in the late 1980s but is definitely not suitable today.
Ensuring your hairstyle is contemporary and flattering will work wonders for your image as well as your self-esteem. It is also worth paying attention to other details that are easily overlooked, such as shoes. You might think no one will notice your dirty, scuffed or unsuitable footwear, but they will. And no matter what magazines might try to tell you, wearing brown shoes with a black outfit does not work!
According to Judi James, your choice of bag will speak volumes. "A good business bag is the quickest fix your visual image can get," she says. At the bottom of her list is the plastic carrier bag, closely followed by the posh shop carrier bag. Avoid wicker baskets and ethnic-type bags if you want to be taken seriously. The leather briefcase, or those with a flip-over clasp, are the only safe bets.
Being objective about our dress and habits is not easy. You could ask a close friend to be brutally honest, but there is always the danger that you will then shoot the messenger for bringing bad tidings. A safer option might be to seek the services of an image consultant. Holman says a three-hour consultation will cost between Pounds 100 and Pounds 200, depending on the client's needs.
A session will cover all aspects of clothing, style, posture, grooming and personality. "It's a head-to-toe service - what you will end up with is knowing how to create an appropriate and current look and how to maintain it within your budget," she explains. Consultants show clients how to make the most of their bodyline and use texture, pattern, scale and proportion to their advantage.
The popularity of image consultants is rising, Holman says, because people are realising that image is a stepping stone on the personal development path. "You come away knowing your flaws and idiosyncrasies and how to control them. "
Pauline Crawford, who runs a consultancy called Professional Finish, notes that there is no such thing as a "magic makeover". However, she adds: "We make small changes that make big differences, fine-tuning the person's habits and personal impact. We tackle their attitude towards themselves, make them aware how others perceive them."
The way we dress and act says a great deal about ourselves and our personalities - as Cristina Stuart puts it, we "cannot not communicate". Perhaps the most important thing is simply being aware of that fact, and knowing that it is possible to make changes if you want to.
'Bodytalk: The skills of positive image' by Judi James, Pounds 9.95 from the Industrial Society on 0171 262 2401.
The Federation of Image Consultants, 07010 701018, can provide a list of image consultants in your area.
* Next week: the essentials of time Management
BODY OF EVIDENCE
Judi James says: "Our bodies should dance in time with our words. when they fall out of step we need a rethink." Some of the pitfalls she identifies include:
* crossing arms or legs; tapping feet; covering mouth when talking. These make you seem nervous
* folding arms across your chest; staring; leaning over someone. These make you seem aggressive
* working while being spoken to; standing too close; looking at your watch. These are all perceived as being rude.
Gestures should be appropriate. Judi James describes actions such as closing your eyes as pompous. Positive gestures include making eye contact, nodding to encourage the speaker, and not stuffing your hands too far into your pockets. Good posture, sitting and standing, and the way we walk are other elements worth paying attention to.