Avoid Style over Substance

Ensure we don’t distract others with our clothing or accessories because our communication skills are not strong enough by Susan Heaton-Wright

With so much noise on social media about appearance and how you look, it is even more important to know how to avoid style over substance. What do I mean by this? Here is a definition of “Style over Substance“. In other words, although someone looks immaculately dressed or styled, behind the facade, there is no substance or content. This might sound very harsh, but in a competitive world, knowing how to avoid style over substance is crucial for success.



Non-verbal communication

Now I should mention that I am not advocating poor grooming, or appearing very scruffy. And understanding what the dress code of your industry is, is very important. However, it is not the most important thing, even though some image consultants or stylists will argue otherwise. In fact, it was listening to a stylist state that personal communication is 93% what you wear, that I went back to Mehrabian’s Communication model that she had misunderstood and misquoted.

What Mehrabian ACTUALLY said was that we communicate with what we say; how we say it and non-verbal cues: including our body language, gestures, facial expressions AND personal appearance. How often have we met people who have real charisma who look scruffy, or people who are beautifully dressed but who are boring or “wear the dress”? In other words we notice what they wear but nothing else about them, including what they say! We want to avoid that as successful people.



I am honoured to do a lot of work with Women in Property. They support professional women within the Property industry: from lawyers to surveyors, architects and engineers at emerging leadership to board level roles in a male-dominated industry. Fiona Alfred, The Executive Director has observed that when women speak at events or even in meetings, there is a frisson for 30 seconds when the largely male audience realise a woman is speaking and what they are wearing. THEN the female professional NEEDS to share content with substance to demonstrate credibility. Looking lovely in this industry is not the most important factor.

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avoid style over substance superstar communicator


It is not all about appearance

And here is the point; many people talk about ‘Personal Branding’; this is how you present yourself; your values and what others say about you. It is often mistaken for what you wear; the colours; the designers; the expensive accessories. Some of these expensive accessories are badges of success: ways to ‘set the bar’; but if they are boring; speak rubbish or even are unimpressive, you get distracted by the expensive accessories at the expense of the quality of what you are saying. In other words, even if you have fabulous clothes and accessories, remember not to allow these to distract from your messaging.

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One industry where many people struggle with substance over style is the entertainment industry. Many performers get frustrated that their style upstages their talent and abilities as performers. We can think of beautiful actresses or singers who are not credited with talent due to their styling. Ellie Goulding’s quote sums up the frustration of many people in the entertainment industry whose talents are underestimated.

Be substance

So what can you do to ensure you are substance? I am sure you love wearing beautiful clothes (we all do); but we all need to get the balance right between style and substance. And to ensure we don’t distract others with our clothing or accessories because our communication skills are not strong enough. Perhaps you are lacking in presence or confidence, or you struggle to be heard in meetings.


If you would like some support with your executive presence and communication style do get in touch

Susan Heaton Wright Contributor
Susan Heaton-Wright is a global Virtual impact, communications and speaking trainer for corporate clients. She empowers talented people to create memorable and engaging business conversations. She is the creator of the Superstar Communicator™ methodology: an international speaker; the MD of award winning music company, Viva Live Music, podcaster and a former prize winning international opera singer. She delivers virtual seminars, workshops and individual training for many companies including Astra Zeneca, Deloitte, RBS, Shell, Microsoft, AAP, Invesco, AXA, the NHS and Quintiles. She is regularly interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live; BBC2, local radios and international podcasts. In 2020, she was named as an #ialso 100 top inspirational female entrepreneur in UK.
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