In Business, How Much Should Appearances Matter?

Do you demand a high level of external slickery from your service-providers?  

If so, take heed: I might not be your best choice of writer, were you ever to find yourself in the market for one.

Just before I set myself up as a freelance scribbler, I took a Talent Dynamics personality test that told me I have “little interest in impressing with or indulging in (my) outward appearance”.  As a natural scruffbag, this came as no surprise whatsoever.

And because every personality test is designed to royally flatter its subject, my result also compared me with the late Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and once the richest man in America.  Sam inspired this quote from another US retail big-shot, Bernard Marcus, when they went out for lunch together one day: 

“I hopped into Sam’s red pickup truck. No air-conditioning. Seats stained by coffee. And by the time I got to the restaurant, my shirt was soaked through and through. And that was Sam Walton – no airs, no pomposity.”

I don’t drive a red pickup truck (after seven failed tests I don’t drive at all, in fact).  But if I did, it probably would look and feel a lot like Sam Walton’s red pickup truck.  I lived alone for years, but it took my boyfriend moving in to make me notice all the things that were in dire need of an upgrade, such as the dribbling shower, the defunct dishwasher, and the patched-up, second-hand TV that hasn’t worked properly since the turn of the century.  

Recently, I’ve been pondering the importance of appearance in business.  Partly, this is because I’m in the process of re-branding… sadly, my six-year-old headshots and profile pictures are starting to look a bit like the highly optimistic ‘recent photos’ of dating-app hopefuls.

It’s also because Covid has invited a procession of strangers into our homes, by way of listless Zoom meetings (other online meeting platforms are available) during which our bookshelves were scrutinised, our ornaments mocked, and our taste in décor umpired.

Not only is there a dedicated Twitter account, Room Rater, that judges people’s online backgrounds, but the home improvement company Wickes launched a nationwide advertising campaign based on the concept of ‘housebarrassment’ (basically: spend lots and lots of money on a shiny new kitchen, rather than risk a few people you don’t care about thinking your current one is a bit rubbish).

My own Zoom background is cheerfully characterised by vanilla wallpaper, piles of well-thumbed books, games, lop-sided cat carriers, and the odd childhood cuddly toy.  “Maybe you could try and make your workspace look a bit more professional to outsiders,” suggested a lovely client recently, as we chatted about potential new year’s resolutions.

This was helpful and considered advice, which I appreciated.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want to. 

Manoeuvring and prettifying my workspace to appeal to others means it won’t be wholly my workspace anymore.  To me, there’s an uncomfortable feeling of falseness about that (note that this is a personal opinion. I’m not saying everybody should feel the same.  Far from it).   

There’s also a sense that my cluttered-but-much-loved background is a useful ‘wheat from chaff’ separator, in that anyone truly bothered by it, to the point where they wouldn’t want to work with me, would be better off finding a more outwardly slick writer. 

(I also reserve the right to switch off my camera whenever I feel like it… what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned phone call, anyway?) 

This doesn’t just apply to my own sense of self.  I’m much more comfortable with people – and places – that are honestly unkempt, than those sporting a bright gleam of professional polish, too much of which makes me suspect a deeper lack of substance (which I’ll admit I’m not always right about).  

Basically, if you’re fantastic at what you do, but you forgot to iron your clothes, or your kitchen table is a bit messy, I won’t mind a bit.  If you’re also friendly and interesting to talk to, then I probably wouldn’t even notice.  

I think that when you work for yourself, you will naturally focus on some areas of business more than others.  I’d be lying if I said appearances don’t matter at all, because to some extent they matter to everybody.  Me included, or I wouldn’t bother re-branding in the first place.  

A recent business photoshoot (with a fantastic local photographer, Ross Willsher) and my subsequent scrutinising of every picture for a full assessment of my countless physical flaws, proves that I’m as vain as your average human.

It’s just that when it comes down to it, I’d rather spend lots and lots of money improving my mind and my work, than my kitchen.


If you’d like to focus on developing your writing style and building a habit, my Wondrous Writing Hub starts on 19th January for six fun and supportive weeks.  Find out more and book your place here.

(The course is held on Zoom, and by now you know I won’t care what you or your background look like!)

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