Being in the public eye is a very odd thing. Because much of the time, it is an eye. It’s rarely an ear. Whenever you appear on TV or even in print, people tend to remember how you look not what you say and that can be disconcerting. Especially when your chosen career path was never knowingly based on aesthetics.
Like politicians. Or journalists. I first learned this when I began a fledgling apprenticeship as a guest reporter on The Today Show. After my first wobbly story went to air (a scintillating tale about denim), the woman in charge of the network’s on-air image pulled me aside for a quiet word. That word was ‘bra’ and apparently, I needed a better one.
I also had to cut my hair, stop slouching and speak in a less nasal way. Next, I was ordered to practice sitting on the Today Show couch so I’d look less awkward during interviews.
I took this feedback seriously. I trimmed my hair and tightened my bra straps. I practiced sitting. Until one distressing morning when I arrived on the set and the floor manager ushered me away from the couch towards some stools. “We’re over here for this segment,” he said as my world collapsed. “But I haven’t practiced stools!” I wailed. “I only know couches!”
Years later during my blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint as a TV executive, in a perverse yet oddly karmic twist of fate I was put in charge of the network’s on-air image. Briefly, I was the one who had to ensure shoulders and boobs didn’t droop, ties and shirts didn’t clash and hair was kempt. It was a ridiculous yet necessary job because much of the public feedback is about how TV presenters look. Being the Image Police was a dispiriting task required two attributes: eyes and diplomacy. I possessed one of those and for a time, it was enough.
I’ve slowly come to understand
that the key to a successful public image (ie if you want people to listen to what you’re saying) is to make your appearance fade into the background. Don’t let it detract from your words. Ditch the tricky hair, the wacky tie, the try-hard clothes. Consistency is crucial.
For years, newsreader Georgie Gardener has been my gold standard. She’s always flawless but you rarely notice what she’s wearing. Ditto with her hair and make-up, which always looks immaculately the same. This consistency frees you to listen to what she’s saying, without distraction. That’s the key.
I’m sure Julia Gillard is still baffled by the how her choice of outfit became a news story during the start of the Queensland floods when homes and lives were being lost. It was a classic demonstration of how your appearance can derail your message. Clothes are a code everyone understands without even realising it, until they see something that jars. Like a stitched-up suit during a flood crisis.
Thankfully, by the time she got out and about to meet Queenslanders in flood-affected towns, someone had had a word in her ear and she was in a shirt. Like Anna Bligh. Who can do no wrong in terms of public perception and nails her choice of clothes precisely because you don’t notice them. You just listen to her words of wisdom and reassurance.
Julia Gillard has been experimenting with her look quite a bit since the election and it’s a risky move. In the case of politicians, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds security. And confidence. Reassurance. It’s unsettling when a leader keeps changing their appearance. Whether they’re doing it out of boredom, frustration or a misguided belief that nobody will notice, it’s a huge mistake. Pick a look and stick with it*. When I worked in magazines and every day was a fancy dress party, my staff would panic on the rare occasion I turned up wearing a black jacket. “What’s going on?” they’d ask anxiously and I’d have to reassure them I wasn’t going for a job interview.