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Your professional image

Oct. 1, 2004
Your professional image is part of your nonverbal communication that will make an impression. It is an unspoken promise from you to your patients and from you to the other team members.

by Janice Hurley

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Your professional image is part of your nonverbal communication that will make an impression. It is an unspoken promise from you to your patients and from you to the other team members. It sets the stage for what they might expect from you. It isn't the essence of who you are, and it can never make up for a lack of true substance. But, willingly or unwillingly, you're making an impression with your visual impact.

As Shakespeare observed, "The apparel often proclaims the man."

You make the biggest impression during your first encounter. That first imprint will be the most lasting. Therefore, since you are in the business of meeting numerous people for the first time, it is worth your attention to decide how you want to be perceived.

If asked how most people want to be perceived, the number one adjective used is confident. Men and women, on a multicultural level, want to be perceived as confident.

The top four additional choices made by clinical staff are: Professional, clean, polished, and competent.

The cliche "You never have a second chance to make a first impression" is overused but true. You're projecting something. Consciously or not, you are sending a message to others about how you see yourself and how you personally and professionally want to be perceived by others. Your image is an energy force that dwells within you, and one that makes external connections with those around you.

How can you make sure you're communicating what you want to say about yourself? How can you be effective in your efforts to give an accurate impression?

There are three simple steps:

• Identify how you want to be perceived. Write down five adjectives about yourself. Think about the value of effectively communicating those qualities to your patients, co-workers, and doctor. Be conscious of the fact that you are making declarations about yourself through your appearance.

• Get the real picture. Photographs and video footage are excellent tools to see yourself as others see you. Take these lasting impressions on different days and at different times. We meet new patients as often at the end of the day as we do at the beginning. Get your own visuals, and take the opportunity to document what your patients see. Do the best you can to see yourself as others do.

• Identify the tools available to you. Some physical aspects of your image you have no control over, such as your age, gender, height, and ethnicity. This doesn't mean that those aspects don't make a big impact - they do. However, it's advantageous to spend your time and energy on the things you can control. What you can do with information regarding those areas is understand it.

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Items you do have control over
• Hair - The four words to remember are, "Up off your neck." Long or short hair is not as important as wearing it off your face and neck. Minimal hair ornaments are encouraged for a more professional image. Bangs can often be a challenge for the clinical team member.

• Makeup - Your makeup should certainly reflect your personality and preference. However, neutral colors and conservative application give the best results for clinical team members. All aspects of makeup such as foundation, lipstick, blush, and mascara are appropriate for female hygienists. Nothing should stand out or look too colorful. A very clean and minimal look is the desired result.

• Uniform - Clean and pressed. White lab coats need to be fresh each day. White lab coats and scrubs need to be or look professionally ironed. Some wonderful wrinkle-free scrubs are available that don't have the limp or wrinkle challenge. However, the material doesn't breathe well and some hygienists find them too warm.

All team members should have identical uniforms. Many times I consult with offices that have a hodge-podge of uniforms, and it looks like everyone came from different offices. I love black scrubs with white lab coats. Crisp collared shirts and pants with white lab coats are also very attractive.

• Shoes - Close-toed and comfortable shoes. Your work shoes should remain polished and worn only while you are at work.

• Name tags - A professional must. This includes either your name tag, or your office logo and name enbroidered on your lab jacket.

• Posture - Proud and confident. Pull those shoulders up and then back and down. This is a great habit to develop when going to get your next patient. Your muscles will thank you. It is common to develop a slumping posture given all the clinical hours working chair side.

• Health and fitness - I'd love to say judgments aren't made on someone's weight or physical fitness, but this isn't true. I wish I could say that I've never had a dentist who didn't discount an overweight applicant, but that isn't true. Unfortunately, I find a great deal of judgment and prejudice about physical size and appearance during staffing selections. Despite professional skills and experience, an excellent candidate can be overlooked because of weight, an unfortunate occurrence for both the applicant and the employer. However, if you are concerned about your professional image, it would greatly enhance the quality of your work and personal life to begin an exercise and healthy eating plan.

• Eye contact - Goes right along with your handshake - warm and confident. Hygienists who walk out to the reception area and greet their patients with a professional handshake and an introduction give their patients a wonderful gift.

• Communication - When you have something important the patient needs to remember, your conversation should be directed at their eye level. Resist the urge to talk "at" the patient while you are working around or behind them. Sit down and address your patient. Remember to pause in a conversation. This gives the listener a clue that something important is about to be said. A warm and encouraging voice tone is another plus.

Your professional image is worth your time and attention. The gift you can give your patients with your well groomed and up-to-date appearance is one of respect and competence. So take hold of that digital camera, and primp, pose and have fun. Flash those pearly whites in every shot. Don't be shy. We know hygienists have the most beautiful teeth in the whole world.

Janice Hurley is president of Janice Hurley and Associates and has been a very successful practice management consultant for over 18 years. She is a noted author and international speaker. She was a speaker at the recent meeting for the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentists and a guest speaker for The Meeting of the Masters in Sydney Australia 2004. Her recent articles have appeared in Dental Economics, Dentistry Today, and Dental Product Reports. She was a recent featured speaker for the UCLA Dental Continuum and an ongoing speaker for American Academy of Women Dentists - Linda Miles seminars.