Dress for virtual success

Back when I was fresh out of college, in my first reporting gig, I learned that context matters a lot in getting folks to talk to you.

At the start, a typical conversation would go like this:

“Hi, this is Maria Korolov from the Chicago Tribune…”

“No, thank you, we don’t want a subscription.” Then the sound of the phone slamming down. Ouch!

I had to learn how to introduce myself so that I didn’t sound like a telemarketer.

Then, when interviewing people face to face, I learned that appearance and attitude make a huge deal of difference when meeting potential sources for the first time.

One difficult early assignment was covering election results for a wire service. I had to stand outside polling booths, and ask total strangers to tell me how they voted. And then ask them for their name, age, profession, and town where they lived. I couldn’t quote them without having all of that. The hardest part of the whole process was actually not asking for all that stuff, but walking up to them in the first place and getting their attention. But okay, explaining that I couldn’t quote them unless I had their age — that was tricky, too.

Being dressed professionally, carrying a notepad — or a large amount of camera equipment — helped with the first step. People will take the time to listen to you without dismissing you out of hand. It doesn’t mean that they’ll say yes — but at least they’ll listen.

Yes, some reporters pride themselves on dressing like bums, but you never want to get confused with an actual bum looking for a handout. If you do, people won’t even pause long enough to give you a “No comment.”

This week, when reporting a story, I forgot this simple rule and got a couple of virtual doors slammed — figuratively — in my face.

Since it’s a lot less painful to learn from other people’s mistakes, here are the lessons I was reminded off. They could come in handy for anyone doing business in a virtual world for the first time.

Appearance matters

When people see a stranger for the first time, they automatically classify them into categories based on past experience. And, depending on the classification, will give the stranger more — or less — time to make their case. A stranger in a police uniform gets more attention than one in a Walmart greeter’s uniform. A stranger who looks like George Clooney will get all the attention he needs.

A stranger who’s naked, or ragged, looking like a prison escapee, or wearing clothing from the previous century — unless worn in a cool, ironic fashion — will be avoided.

In virtual worlds, residents quickly learn to avoid people wearing default starting avatars.

If you’re going to be conducting a marketing survey, say, in a virtual world, dress your avatars for the job at hand. The outfit will be different based on the role the avatar is expected to play. If interviewing participants in a clinical setting, scrubs or a lab coat will help visitors feel more at ease. If in a retail environment, a fashionable outfit may be more appropriate. A business setting may require professional dress.

My mistake? Instead of taking a few minutes to import my regular avatar, I went into a new grid with the default starting avatar — Ruth. The grid wasn’t on the hypergrid, so I couldn’t teleport in with my regular avatar, and was trying to get a quick quote before I signed off for the night. In retrospect? A false savings. And an embarrassing lesson for someone who’s supposed to be an expert on this stuff. Let the egg on my face be a lesson to others!

Me as Ruth. Oh, the shame, the shame.

Have credentials

When meeting people face-to-face, you would typically follow up the initial impression with some of kind of supporting materials. Maybe an identity badge, a business card, a police badge, or a product brochure.

In virtual worlds, you would need to fill out your profile information. And, if you’re there on real business, include supporting evidence of your real business credentials — a link to your company site, your LinkedIn profile, your Facebook page.

And this might not be enough — after all, anyone can create an avatar, pretend to be you, and try to get information from people. You might need to include your email address, so that people can confirm your identity before they continue the discussion.

I personally also include all my phone numbers. After all, with all the time I spend calling people interrupting them at their desks, it’s only fair that they be able to call me, and interrupt me at mine.

Have working equipment

Have you ever shown up at a business meeting and not had your equipment work? You laptop wouldn’t boot, your projector wouldn’t project, your recorder wouldn’t record… it happens to all of us, and you learn to plan ahead. You check your equipment before you leave the house, and you have printed materials just in case things go wrong anyway.

Otherwise, you’re just wasting people’s time.

In a business setting, that’s never a good thing.

The virtual world equivalent is to make sure your microphone works, instead of grabbing an old mike that you were going to throw out because it keeps cutting out on you mid-conversation. Use a fast computer, running up-to-date software — don’t wait until your meeting is about to begin before realizing that you have to spend 20 minutes installing an upgrade.

The virtual is real

It’s too easy to forget that the virtual world is a real place. It’s not like popping online for a second in your pajamas, knocking out a quick email or instant message, and moving on.

You need to plan ahead, allocate sufficient time, and treat the people you meet with respect. You might still strike out — but at least you’ll strike out for the right reasons, not because you  give folks the willies.

Maria Korolov