Improve Your Personal “Curb Appeal”

Published: Nov 28, 2018
Modified: May 23, 2019

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about selling a house. I know, for instance, that much depends on timing (economic timing as well as the time of year you put the house on the market), and, of course, the mantra “location, location, location” still holds true. I’ve also found out that a property needs “curb appeal”—that special combination of factors that makes an instant positive impression on prospective buyers.

So when I read Drew Westen’s fabulous book, The Political Brain (about the role of emotion in politics), I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that curb appeal is also crucial in political campaigns.

Of course, Westen is referring to personal curb appeal. “One of the main determinants of electoral success,” he explains, “is simply a candidate’s curb appeal. Curb appeal is the feeling voters get when they ‘drive by’ a candidate a few times on television and form an emotional impression.”

Research shows that personal curb appeal can be assessed quickly. Psychologists Nalini Ambady and Bob Rosenthal conducted experiments involving what they called “thin slices of behavior.” These studies have been referenced in numerous writings—most famously, in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. In one such study, subjects watched a 30-second clip of college teachers at the beginning of a term and rated them on characteristics such as accepting, active, competent, and confident. The results were startling. Raters were able to accurately predict how students would evaluate those same teachers at the end of the course.

Personal curb appeal is primarily a nonverbal process. When Ambady and Rosenthal turned off the audio portion of the teachers’ video clip, so that subjects had to rely only on body language cues, the accuracy of their 30-second predictions remained just as high.

How’s your personal curb appeal? When your co-workers, clients, and business partners “drive by” you, how do you come across? If you’d like to improve, here are five tips to keep in mind:

1. Dress for success.  Joyce is a successful educator and entrepreneur. One of the secrets of her success is the way she dresses. Even when traveling for a vacation, Joyce is in a business suit and heels. Her motto: “Wear great clothes. You never know whom you’ll meet!”
When it comes to curb appeal, the way you dress matters—a lot. Clothing has an effect on both the observer and the wearer. It has been proven that people are more likely to give money (charitable donations, tips) or information to someone if that person is well dressed. If you’ve ever watched actors at their first dress rehearsal, you know how the power of the right costume impacts how the wearer feels.
Dressing for success doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear a suit to work—many organizations have a more casual dress code—but it does mean that whatever you wear should send the message that you are a competent professional.

2. Maintain positive eye contact.  Eye contact is most effective when both parties feel its intensity is appropriate for the situation. This may differ with introverts/extroverts, men/women, or between people of different cultures; but in general, greater eye contact—especially in intervals lasting four to five seconds—almost always leads to a greater level of approval.

Looking at someone's eyes transmits energy and indicates interest. As long as you are looking at me, I believe that I have your full attention. In my book, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, I offer a simple way to improve your likeability factor: Whenever you greet a business colleague, look into his or her eyes long enough to notice what color they are.

3. Learn to speak the body language of inclusion. Back-to-back doesn’t do it, but belly-to-belly—facing people directly when talking with them—does. Even a quarter turn away signals your lack of interest and makes the speaker shut down.

Remove barriers between you and the other person. Move the phone or stacks of paper on your desk that could block your view. Better still, come out from behind your desk and sit next to the person you’re talking with.

Use palm-up hand gestures when speaking. Keeping your movements relaxed, using open arm gestures, and showing the palms of your hands—all are silent signals of credibility and candor. Individuals with open gestures are perceived more positively and are more persuasive than those with closed gestures (arms crossed, hands hidden or held close to the body, etc.)

Synchronize your body language to mirror your partner’s. Subtly match his stance, arm positions and facial expressions. You may not realize, by the way, that you do this naturally with people you genuinely like or agree with. It’s a way of nonverbally signaling that you are connected and engaged.

4. Use your head. The next time you are in a conversation where you’re trying to encourage the other person to speak more, nod your head using clusters of three nods at regular intervals. Research shows that people will talk three to four times more than usual when the listener nods in this manner. You’ll be amazed at how this single nonverbal signal can trigger such a positive response

Head tilting is another signal that you are interested and involved. As such, head tilts can be very positive cues when you want to send messages of empathy and understanding; but a tilted head is also subconsciously processed as a submission signal. (Dogs will tilt to show their necks in deference to a more dominant animal.) And in business negotiations with men, women—who tend to head-tilt the most—should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.

5. Use your smile power.  A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable.” The human brain prefers happy faces, recognizing them more quickly than those with negative expressions. In fact, a smile is such an important signal to social interaction that it can be recognized from 300 feet—more than a football field away.

Most important, smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, he almost always smiles in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way. This one simple act will instantly and powerfully increase your curb appeal.

In his work with candidates, Drew Westen found that, after party affiliation, the most important predictor of how people vote is their emotional reaction (gut feeling) toward the candidate. I have found similar results in the workplace. We all want to do business with and work for people who come across as friendly, trustworthy, competent, confident, and empathetic.

I can’t guarantee you’ll win a political election. But improve your curb appeal and I will guarantee that you’ll be more successful in your career.

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: