3 ways to project a professional presence

Projecting a professional presence is more than just donning your best outfit. Find out how to do it right.
Professional presence

When you make a presentation to a potential client, interview with a potential employer, or show up for your first audit at a business, it’s important to make a polished first impression.

Projecting a professional presence is more than just donning your best outfit. Presence is the whole way you present yourself, from your dress, to your body language, to your choice of words, according to speaker, trainer, and executive coach Patsy Cisneros, the CEO and owner of Corporate Icon.

“Really it’s your whole external packaging,” said Cisneros, who offered tips at the 2018 AICPA CFO Conference on how accountants and finance professionals can get their business brand message across.

Your presence is a way of communicating your confidence and competencies “without having to say, ‘Look at my résumé,’” she said. “We can look at the external message of a person and try to get what they are trying to say to us.”

What you’re wearing

For most people, choosing appropriate professional attire may seem like a no-brainer. But day-to-day business wear in the US, for example, has become more flexible over the past 20 years, as many workplaces are now allowing workers to ditch their ties and trade slacks for jeans.

The trend during the tech boom, for instance, had US workers showing up for work wearing whatever they chose.

“However, there were challenges, and human resources had the biggest challenge of all, having to talk to people about what was appropriate and what was inappropriate,” Cisneros said.

Employees’ attire sends a message about the work that goes on inside a company, she said, and companies don’t want to be giving a conflicting message on the quality of the products or services they provide, she said. The same goes for the individual — people want to project an external image that accurately represents the quality and skill of the services or products they offer. So you want to ensure that, whatever the work environment, your clothing looks polished and appropriate for the situation.

How you carry yourself

Beyond clothing, projecting a professional presence relies on a person’s self-awareness about how they come across, and a sense of gravitas. “Gravitas has to do with appropriateness for the time and place,” Cisneros said.

This means understanding how to present yourself in a casual setting and how you might need to adjust when doing business with people from other backgrounds and cultures, where expectations and norms may be different.

“It’s very important that you consider your global environment, and so it’s not anything goes,” Cisneros said. This doesn’t mean formality, but it does mean considering what body language, for example, might be appropriate when working in certain groups or with businesspeople from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

One example, she said, is the awareness that has arisen through the international #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, which has highlighted the importance of appropriate communication in the workplace between men and women and supervisors and those who report to them.

Three other important factors in body language have to do with facial expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures, Cisneros advised.

“It’s not that I am asking someone to walk around with a smile on your face all the time, as that’s very inappropriate,” she said. But for instance, if you can build self-awareness about your facial expressions, you’ll know how to adjust them appropriately.

Cisneros said she has studied her own facial expressions in the mirror and observed that when relaxed, her mouth turns downwards slightly, which could make it appear she is unhappy or concerned.

“So, knowing that, when I am in a serious mood, when I am having a conversation with other people, I want to make sure that my face has a little bit of adjustment,” Cisneros said. “These muscles right in here,” she said pointing to the sides of her mouth. “If I can just lift them a little bit and start exercising those and making a choice being able to turn it on and turn it off appropriately, that’s a wonderful thing.”

It’s also important to consider eye contact when having conversations, she said, making sure your eyes stay engaged and you don’t appear to check out just because you might be thinking about how you want to respond.

Cisneros also coaches professionals to consider the positioning of their hands when they’re making hand gestures.

“Avoid one-finger or two-finger gesturing,” she said, but use your full hand when gesturing and offering information.

Your LinkedIn profile

Creating a LinkedIn profile is also an easy way of presenting a polished professional snapshot of yourself to people you’ll be working with, or those you’ve met and with whom you are hoping to stay in touch.

“It’s a career tool everyone should be using at this time in this era of social media,” she said. It’s also essential to have a professional photo, Cisneros said. “Not one from a wedding, or with your pet,” she said, but a professional photo in business attire. “It should be done professionally. It doesn’t mean expensively — but professionally.” This photo doesn’t have to be a “glamour shot” — “just a good, warm expression of who you are,” Cisneros said.

Spend time keeping your profile up-to-date. “That’s still a projection, externally, of who you are,” she said.

Samiha Khanna is a US-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at