Posted by: nealchambers | July 22, 2009

Your Face is Worth a Thousand Words

If you are an avid user of social media, you’ll find a variety of different profile pictures being used.  Everything from the perfectly normal to the completely insane.  Your profile picture defines who you are to the online world.  It might be the first and only impression you get with people you meet online.  Some people choose to use logos, clipart, or a cartoon animal, but today we are going to talk about the most powerful personal branding tool at your disposal, your face.

Yes, some people might not like their face and choose to cover it up with camouflage or paint or some other kind of obstruction, but it is the best representation of you.  The face is your main tool for communication.  First, there is of course your mouth which is where words are expelled from.  And then, there are the myriad of facial expressions including micro-expressions that convey non-verbal messages to your listener.

The face is so important that there is actually a separate part of the brain that handles the ability to recognize faces.  We know this because there are some people who are afflicted with prosopagnosia that are actually unable to identify people’s faces.  Imagine going through life with that disorder!  For more information on micro-expressions and prosopagnosia, I encourage you to check out an excellent How Stuff Works Podcast that discusses these in detail.

So, today I decided to have a little experiment.  I wanted to test what impression each kind of portrait conveys.  You may think I’m a little narcissistic (and who knows maybe I am?), but I used my face because, well, it was the most willing subject.  The snazzy haircut was actually a byproduct of sitting in the front row of Jurassic Park the Ride shortly before the photo shoot.  I got completely soaked.

I keep getting comments about the aloha shirt.  Here is a short story about its origins:

In college, I was actually a video production major (and now I teach English, the miracles of a college education).  I was shooting a short film and one of the characters was a sleaze ball record label representative.  We wanted to make him look as cheesy as possible so we scoured the local second hand stores and found an aloha shirt for him to wear along with a thick gold chain.  Now, that aloha shirt is one of my most prized possessions.

Okay, first for the control picture:

Won't you be my friend?

Won't you be my friend?

The smiling picture – This is by far the perennial favorite.  Everyone likes a smiling happy person.  It’s inviting and welcoming.  I think this is a great networking picture.  I mean who doesn’t want to meet this guy?  Look at him!

Everything's A-OK

Everything's A-OK

Smiling with a hand gesture – A variation on the smiling picture with the addition of a random hand gesture for a little pizazz.

You are getting sleepy...

You blinked! I win!

The Putin-inspired portrait – I was trying to imitate the now famous portrait of Vladamir Putin.  And yes this picture has been heavily photoshopped.  This portrait gives a sense of seriousness and determination.  I think it’s good because it shows someone as they are, no fanciness or best angle, just the raw you.  Mashable’s CEO Pete Cashmore (@mashable) has a similar portrait.  Great for – a person with stunning good looks or a leader of a 2nd world country. I guess that counts me out.

Where's the camera?

Where's the camera?

The split face (not looking) – This is an interesting portrait because it plays on the rule of thirds.  The item of interest (the face) is in the far corner leading you to wonder “What the f$%k is he looking at?”  Also, the background is out of focus leaving the viewer to wonder “Where is this amazing place he hangs out at?”  It’s full of mystery and intrigue.

Oh! There it is!

Oh! There it is!

The split face (looking) – A variation on the split face portrait.  One of my biggest heroes Timothy Ferriss (@tferriss) actually has a portrait similar to this.  Nik Peachey also has a portrait like this on his blog I don’t recommend smiling too wide though, it might make you look crazy.

Hmm, where did I leave my keys?

Hmm, where did I leave my keys?

The thinker -If you want to present a serious side and not be so ‘naked’ with a Putin portrait, you can try this style.  These can be a little dangerous, choose the wrong pose and you can come off looking like that drama club junkie from high school.

Peek a Boo!

Peek a Boo!

Random facial feature – Okay, now we are getting into the weird ones.  I’ve seen a few people with a facial feature (or two) prominently displayed.  It creates a feeling of shock and surprise.  I have to say it’s interesting, but maybe not the best to make a first impression with.

Warwhol eat your heart out.

Warhol eat your heart out.

Warhol-inspired portrait – Okay, so you might say that Warhol had four of the same pictures, but I wanted to try something different.  As I said before, we’re into the weird portraits now.  What impressions do you get from this portrait?  A total weirdo or artist?  I’ll let you decide.

My latest choice of a mugshot.

My latest choice of a mugshot.

What eventually won out – This was an accidental photo that came out when we were taking thinking pictures. I think it captures my quirkiness well.  What do you think?

Are you sick of looking at me?  Yeah, I know, but imagine what I have to go through every day when I look in the mirror!

But seriously, what do you think of these portraits?  Hopefully you can see that every portrait has a different feeling to it.  You might even feel that each picture is of a different person.  I guess the point is that the portrait you choose to put online everywhere is an important tool.  So, be sure to spend some time and think about the kind of image you want to portray.

How about you?  Have you thought about changing your portrait lately?  How about trying something new?  Let your personality shine through.  I’m interested in seeing what you can come up with.



  1. Hi ya Neal,

    I giggled all the way through these!

    What fun and you’re right about the power of a face -despite how interconnected as we are we do live on opposite ends of the earth just looking at your latest pics now makes me feel a bit like we’ve been grabbing a beer and chatting about the latest trends in teaching with technology.

    BUT dude. No, to the final pic being your fave. Take a twit poll or something.

    I’m lovin’ “won’t u be my friend” and “where’d u put your keys” –

    Take care,
    GR8 post.


    • I think I might take up your suggestion for a twitpoll. But I think I have to add a few more pictures to the lot to make it a full selection. Come on the last pic? It’s weird and quirky, right up my alley.

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Really nice experiment. Love it :).

    First picture: facebook or lost school friends page. Nice but not professional.

    2nd: Jblogger, techie blog, kinda nerdy in a positive way

    3rd: scene from the movie “hangover” 😉

    4th: travel blog

    5th: not real at all

    6th: marketing, consulting, new media

    7th: comic designer

    8th: best one, I agree: multi purpose

    I found out that “accidental” pics are the best.

    That was fun 🙂

    • I didn’t know about the movie “hangover.” I just did a search, and it looks like a good movie, so does that mean the 3rd one is a good picture? I agree that the 4th one does look like a travel blog picture. I never thought about it that way, but it looks like I’m about to embark on some adventure.

      Thanks for you sharing your reflections.

  3. Great post!

    Kind of liked the thinker one. 🙂 What is your advice in changing the pic too drastically? I have seen some people who completely changed their pic and I did not recognize them anymore. Also, do you think people should let people know they changed their avatars?

    • I think it’s perfectly okay to change your profile picture drastically. I also think it is healthy to try to change your picture every 2-3 months just to keep things fresh. I’m not sure if I change it enough or not. I guess the idea is that at a conference, you want someone to be able to instantly recognize you. So, you don’t want something that obscures your face or is shot from a weird angle.

      As for letting people know they changed their avatar, I don’t think it’s necessary. I have way too many profile pictures out there on the net at the moment. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Ning, Gravatar, StumbleUpon…. I just try to update it when I can. Do you think there is an advantage to having multiple portraits out there? Different ones on each of your profiles? Helps give people several views of you.

      Just random thoughts. Shelly you always have great questions. Keep asking them!

  4. I have a problem in that I’ve grown fond of my pic! LOL! However, you have posed some great arguments so I guess I will be changing the pic soon! Hmmm… now to having fun with experimenting with different poses.

  5. Hi Neal,

    I used to have a picture of myself / avatar that looked fairly good, until I met someone who had seen it and they were really disappointed that I didn’t look so good in the flesh! Oh well : (

    Anyway, on a professional level I think it might be worth sticking with one consistent image of yourself, as like your name, your image becomes part of your ‘personal branding’. I’m keen on the idea of people quickly recognising my name and image and building up positive ‘brand’ associations with that and connecting it to what I do. I’m not so keen though on them recognising me at conferences. I don’t like to disappoint.


    Nik Peachey

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