2.4 Prerequisite 3: Poise

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the importance of physical appearance and nonverbal communication in the job search.
  2. Learn ways to enhance your poise.

Your Poise Communicates Volumes without You Saying a Word

The way you dress, carry yourself, and physically behave also communicate your job potential. Your nonverbal communication either supports the things you say and how you say them, or it undermines you. If you are an articulate, well-spoken person but dress in a sloppy manner, slouch, and fidget, then your actions belie your verbal communication. Therefore, poise goes hand in hand with communication as a fundamental prerequisite for your search.

Professional Dress Signals Your Professional Maturity

What you wear to different job search functions signals neatness, professionalism, and understanding of general business protocol. A business suit in a dark neutral color is the standard. Black, blue, brown, and gray are neutral colors. Some industries and specific companies within industries dress more casually, so it’s important to consult an experienced person in the specific industries and companies that interest you for the most relevant guidelines. For example, in media and fashion, your dress is a signal of how much you know and can fit into that field. A dark suit would be too bland and look out of place at a fashion-forward company.

For general functions, such as career fairs or professional mixers, stick to proper business attire. Even if there are a range of dress options in attendance, it’s best to be more formally dressed. In addition, most job seekers look more professional and put together with a business suit. You probably will carry yourself more professionally, have better posture, and be more alert in a business suit than in casual attire.

If you are attending an event or an interview where business casual is stipulated, this is still neater and more formal than casual attire. Khakis rather than jeans, dress slacks and a sport coat for men, and a sweater set for women are some examples of business casual.

Here is a checklist of things to remember about dressing professionally:

  • Dark, neutral colors and a matching suit jacket and slacks or skirt are the standard.
  • Shoes should be comfortable and polished. No open-toed styles or very high heels; even in dressy styles, shoes with open toes or very high heels look unprofessional.
  • What you wear beneath the jacket will also be seen. For men, blue or white dress shirts are standard, though some other colors are acceptable. For women, stick to blouses with sleeves in case you take your jacket off (sleeveless is too casual). Women should also stay away from frilly camisoles—they can be seen under your jacket and still look like lingerie.
  • Cover yourself. No body hair for men or cleavage for women should be visible. Women should make sure skirt lengths are not too short.
  • Avoid overly printed ties, lots of jewelry, accessories, or too much makeup, all of which detract from a professional appearance.
  • Have a professional briefcase or bag. A backpack or other casual bag diminishes the professional image.
  • Fragrance is not recommended because some people are allergic.
  • Keep hair neat and off your face so interviewers can see you.
  • Don’t wait until you start your job search to make sure you have the appropriate clothes. It takes time to ensure the fit and length is right, and you may need tailoring or other services.

The Way You Carry Yourself Also Signals Professionalism

If you have a great suit but you slouch, that is an incomplete package. Good posture, steady eye contact, and a firm handshake are additional fundamentals to the job search process. Even if you think this is common sense, don’t assume that you will be 100 percent put together once your search starts. If you are not used to dressing professionally and interacting with people in a formal business context, then you may have a weak handshake or poor eye contact and not realize it. Before you get busy with interviews, see if you can attend a business event just as a practice run.

Here is a checklist of things to remember about carrying yourself professionally:

  • Maintain good posture. You don’t want to be stiff, but you want to stand and sit straight, as it keeps you looking and feeling alert. Practice maintaining good posture over time (interviews can last thirty minutes or longer).
  • Maintain steady eye contact, but not 100 percent of the time. It’s preferable to look away from time to time, as glaring or staring at someone makes them uncomfortable.
  • Have a firm handshake. Don’t break the person’s hand, but don’t be hesitant or limp, either.
  • Develop a habit of turning off and not checking your cell phone when you are talking to someone.
  • Practice eating and speaking formally. There will be situations where you are networking or even interviewing over a meal. You don’t want a real interview to be the first time you experience formal dining and conversation.

Body Language and Nonverbal Communication Support or Undermine Your Words

You might look great, carry yourself well, and speak eloquently, but you also communicate with physical gestures and other nonverbal cues. Pay attention to how you use your body during conversations and meetings. You might find that you can’t sit still for long periods of time or that you use a lot of distracting hand gestures. You might be too still and miss opportunities to accentuate points with a nod of the head or finger movement.

Some recruiter pet peeves include the following:

  • Looking over the recruiter’s shoulder. What are you staring at?
  • Fidgeting constantly. How are you going to appear to clients if you can’t sit still?
  • Gesticulating in an overly dramatic way. Don’t slam your hands down emphatically on the recruiter’s desk. It looks threatening, not forceful.
  • Lack of common courtesy, for example, not covering your mouth when you yawn, cough, or sneeze. How could an employer put you in front of a client with that unmannerly behavior?
  • Checking cell phones during meetings or interviews. Is this job less important to you than your cell phone calls?

Start practicing good manners now so these habits are ingrained behaviors before your job search.

Key Takeaways

  • Poise refers to professional dress, carriage, appropriate body language, and nonverbal communication skills. Poise is critical to the job search.
  • Good poise complements and supports the other good job search fundamentals, while lack of poise detracts from them.
  • Prepare and practice now to incorporate poise into your regular behavior.


  1. Review your interview clothes. Practice meeting with a friendly contact to check your handshake, eye contact, and posture. Practice interviewing with a friendly contact and ask him or her to watch for your nonverbal communication. What area of poise is your strongest and weakest in the job search?
  2. What will you do now to work on problem areas? If your interview clothes need tailoring or additions, where can you shop or find a tailor? If your carriage or body language is lacking, do you have additional friendly contacts, even family, with whom you can practice getting through a conversation with upright posture, good eye contact, and appropriate gestures?
  3. Check for resources in your school or community library, such as opportunities to practice or books specifically dedicated to professional image or style.