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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

19th September 2014

Dress to impress

I recently received an invitation to talk about dress. A business club wanted to hear my views about how to dress for business meetings. I’m always happy to speak in public, but I wasn’t sure that I was the best person to give advice on this subject.

I probed for more detail. Apparently, some business meetings of Belarusian IT companies with British contacts hadn’t gone as well as hoped. So the business club wanted some advice. Although I’m not a professional expert on the issue, I have lived and worked in Milan. That’s not necessarily the best qualification for becoming an adviser on dress, but it did open my eyes about “bella figura”, as the Italians say, or having a good appearance.

Preparation – setting an objective

I’ve listened to many talks over the years. The most memorable are those that entertain, as well as inform. People tend to remember only a few points when listening to a presentation. So I felt that on a subject I wasn’t necessarily confident about, I needed an idea to get the audience thinking.

I wasn’t entirely sure that dress was the main issue. Being smart is only part of making an impression on someone you meet for the first time. But I know that first impressions are important.

I thought back to my own preparation before I arrived in Belarus. I spent time with a coach working on my personal brand for the new leadership role I was taking on as an ambassador. I had been sceptical about the idea of a “personal brand” when I had previously discussed it. I felt it was a gimmick from business schools and not relevant to my job.

I had only a few sessions with my coach, but we ended up talking a lot about authenticity. In essence, it didn’t matter so much what my brand was, but that my brand should reflect my nature. In other words, that I should “be myself” in leading my team, and “authentic” in presenting myself.

Managing those expectations

I put those thoughts together, and came up with an idea. The key was my role. During my training, I heard several times that people had expectations about what an ambassador should be like. That included how they dressed. When I arrived, I found Belarusians expected me to be smart and well dressed. As I told the audience, I represent a country of 63 million people, with an economy worth about £1.6 trillion (US$2.5 trillion). I should look the part.

I am also something of a contrarian – I enjoy confounding expectations. I decided that if I was going to speak on this subject, I should turn up dressed not as smartly as an ambassador should for a formal occasion, but as I wanted to when giving an informal talk.

So: no suit or tie, but a striped shirt like I would normally wear to work, and a jacket (I was also going to be photographed). Then casual trousers which, to add to the effect, were a little grubby as I had inadvertently spilt some food down them earlier that day. And comfortable moccasins – one habit I had picked up from my time in Italy – rather than the traditional British black leather shoes that I usually wear. And no socks! (It was still August.)

You are never quite sure how an audience of people who you haven’t met will react. As I had hoped, they seemed intrigued by my attire. They politely agreed that I wasn’t dressed quite as they expected. Which set up the punch line: if you want to impress your business contacts, think of yourself as the ambassador for your business, and dress like an ambassador.

Challenging the audience

Such a gimmick is all very well, but the danger is the audience will only remember the gimmick. I didn’t want them to dress like an ambassador. Dressing smartly is important if you want to make a good impression. But I wanted them to think about what they were trying to achieve.

I found some research on “thin slicing” which gave me some science about first impressions. Being smartly dressed is only part of what makes a good impression. I showed photographs of some famous IT entrepreneurs dressed scruffily, and some very well dressed people who weren’t necessarily prepared to do business.

I talked about authenticity and how I had found the concept difficult to understand or relate to my role. But I gave a few thoughts on what I thought it meant. I lapsed into alliteration – repeating the same letters or syllables in a phrase (but alliterations are a good way of being memorable).

dress to impressI’m not sure the right definition of authenticity is the projection of “confidence, comfort and credibility”. But the words appear regularly in texts on good presentations. I know that being comfortable in your clothes helps project confidence and credibility. But I pointed out that other things can also project confidence and credibility such as a thorough knowledge of your business, having a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve and so on.

Wanting more

I concluded by suggesting that you needed to strike a balance between making an impact by “dressing to impress” while achieving your goals through being authentic. Luckily I had made a sufficient impression that I sparked lots of questions. I was also vague during my presentation, and didn’t explain what I meant by being “smart”.

I ended up wondering if you could teach confidence. I didn’t think you could, and said so to the audience. They didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t have an answer, but the thought has come back to me since.

When preparing my presentation, I had come across an article on the BBC website with the following line that a journalist had written in a piece about a very successful businesswoman:

Like most people, I would like to do better at my job. I would also like to become famous, make buckets of money and remain true to myself.

That summed up well my aspirations when I was younger (and which I still have to some extent). But like many business presentations, it’s easy to say such things, far harder to achieve them. I hope they will invite me back to talk again, because giving the presentation made me reflect about my own dress, appearance and impression.

This is a commentary on the presentation I gave to the business club at Imaguru on 23 August 2014.

1 comment on “Dress to impress

  1. Interesting and as you point out it depends which country you are in and what the situation warrants. During the last fifty years if you take business men, leaders of governments, civil servants etc, the change in dress is very different from when I started work in nineteen fifty nine, maybe progress.

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About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.