What does professional REALLY mean? If your equipment is bigger than mine are you more professional than me?

What does “professional” mean?

I mean, what does it really mean?

When I was a little boy, my Dad was the captain of one of the local golf clubs. Every Sunday we used to go there for lunch. Tangy tomato soup. Delicious plates of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings soaked in gravy. Followed by ice cream gâteaux.

After coffee, we often went into the Pro’s shop.

I remember asking my Dad why they called it the Pro’s shop.

“It’s short for professional,” he said.

What does professional mean?
My Dad explained the professional played golf for money. The golf club paid him to play golf, teach people how to play golf, and run the shop for them. His occupation was a professional golfer.

Dad went on to say, even though he was the captain, and he played golf 2 or 3 times a week, he was an amateur golfer. Because he played for fun.

All these years later my Dad’s is the best definition of the word professional. It’s when someone gets for the services they offer and not doing it as a hobby, for fun.

A professional photographer takes photographs and gets paid for taking photographs.

I take photographs. I enjoy taking photographs. But I don’t get paid for taking photographs. I’m an amateur photographer.

Easy isn’t it.

Size of camera

But recently I’ve seen people using the term professional to imply superiority. And in some cases, to have a go at people they feel are inferior to them.

Sticking with the photography example, I was talking to a design agency about producing video.

They reviewed some of the videos I’ve made using my iPhone 12 and my Lumix G85 camera. They said complimentary things about my results. I was happy with their opinion. But they also said, if I wanted them to help me, they could make my videos look much more “professional”.

I asked them what they meant by more “professional”.

The answer was, “We can use a better camera. We can add more sophisticated graphics and we can introduce tighter editing.”

No one’s paid me for making my videos. I’m an amateur videographer not a professional. The agency is offering to film and edit videos for me for money on a professional basis. So the agency does meet my definition of professional.

But that’s not what they meant, is it?

What they really meant is “professional” is using a more expensive camera. Using more expensive software to edit the footage. Using tighter, i.e. better, editing.

But would another, bigger, agency with an even bigger camera and even more sophisticated software offers an even more “professional” service to the first agency?

And is a film studio or the BBC more “professional” than the bigger design agency simply because they have access to bigger, giant, cameras and even more sophisticated editing equipment?

Vlogging a roadshow

A few days later whilst talking to a big financial services corporate who are about to do a series of roadshows, I suggested they got someone to Vlog it. Their reply was they couldn’t afford to hire a cameraman.

I said to get one of the staff to do it on an iPhone. Or go out and buy a good point and shoot.

They said that wouldn’t be very “professional”.

So, their view is it’s not “professional” to do a corporate video on an iPhone or a cheap camera? Or to get one of their staff to Vlog a roadshow.

Do they think iPhones or cheap cameras shoot crap video?

What does professional mean?
Let’s be clear. iPhones and cheap cameras can shoot 4K video. Better even than standard BBC broadcast quality.

So if 4K on an iPhone or cheap camera isn’t “professional”, when does it become “professional”? On a Canon E90E? Or a great big BBC outside broadcast camera?

Passive language and jargon

Another time I was talking to a client about the language they use in their brochures. I found the language very passive, dull and full of management speak and jargon.

We did an edit of the brochures and introduced a much chattier style which I felt was much more engaging for potential customers. I’d researched their ideal client type and recommended words and language the clients had used themselves to answer questions.

However, once the legal and finance people within the company got their hands on the redrafted copy, they wanted to change it back to the dull old style.

I do you get paid for writing copy for people and I do you get paid for creating marketing material. I’m a professional marketer. But it’s clear what this lot felt was more “professional” was the dull language, management speak, passive sentences and jargon.

Even though that language won’t engage their customers.

They’ve defined “professional” by their own corporate standards. And in their case professional means dull language, management speak, passive sentences and jargon. Just as the small agency’s definition of professional is shaped by the quality and size of their video equipment.

What does professional mean?

That’s fine I have no problem with people having standards.

It’s when people and companies start judging others by their standards that problems start. And if they imply someone else is “unprofessional” because they don’t have the same standards. Or the same sized equipment!

Being Professional on LinkedIn

Have you ever seen people who post pictures of beautiful scenery, or their cats on LinkedIn getting pulled up for not being professional? 

Some people say LinkedIn is a “professional” website and there should be no personal stuff. 

Does “professional” mean an environment where we don’t get to see a bit of the real person behind the “professional” person? I quite like getting a bit of a peek into their real lives – it might make me keener to work with them.

All these examples made me wonder what the word “professional” really means.

You are professional

And the answer is it means different things to different people and different companies.

It only becomes a problem when they judge others by their self-imposed standards. And imply that anyone else not living up to those standards is “not professional”.

Whatever your job, if you get paid, you are a professional.

Full stop.

You deliver a professional service at the standards you set for yourself and your customers.

If you want to make a video on your iPhone or camera. Do it. Go ahead and crush it. Don’t let anyone put you off. Okay, an agency might be able to put a more “polished” production together but never let them say it’ll be more professional than yours.

Other people and companies might have more expensive, or bigger, equipment, different standards and different outlooks but they have no right to judge you or imply you are inferior if you don’t meet their own expectations.

If they do. Well, how unprofessional of them.

Now it’s your turn:

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. People can be professional and act in an unprofessional way, can’t they? What was bugging me was the “superiority” professional implies. What examples have you come across? Please leave a comment or share on social media.