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Creating First Impressions

In this article, we are going to focus on first impressions. We will first touch on the importance of first impressions and then deconstruct how you can influence the impression you create.

A. Why are Impressions Important

It may seem obvious, but first impressions are even more critical than we may think. Why? Because humans are lazy. Yes, I know my fellow Americans don't go to the gym, but what do I mean by lazy? I mean, people prefer to take mental short cuts and fall into cognitive bias. For example, one common bias is the horn and halo effect.

The horn and halo effect is where you take one trait and use that trait to assume much more about that person- whether that person is amazing or horrible. For example, if you are a great speaker in the workplace, then under the halo effect, people will assume you are intelligent, a leader, confident, and the list goes on. However, if you are a poor communicator, people might think the opposite, i.e., the horn effect. Why does this happen? Because it is easier to make an assumption rather than doing the hard work to understand an entire person.

The same thing happens when we meet someone for the first time. People use the first impression as a short cut to fill in the blanks. The first impression will inform whether they consider you smart, confident, nervous, someone they want to connect with again, or someone they want to ignore. Therefore, it is essential to understand how we can influence impressions because it can have a considerable impact.

B. How can we Create Impressions

There is a great quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, "what you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear the words you are saying." I love this quote because it is saying two things. First, actions speak louder than words. Secondly, a lot more than words goes into forming impressions.

10 factors that influence impressions.

1. Dress. How you dress can greatly impact your first impression. If I were to unbutton a few buttons on my shirt, you'd think, "wait a minute Steve-O. This is a business meeting, not a club!" How should you dress? Since there are so many different dress styles in the workplace, I consider the following principles: avoid wrinkles, stains, holes, or anything that does not fit.

2. Rest Position. This includes posture and the default position you place your hands when you are not gesturing. A slouch can convey a lack of confidence, whereas standing up straight can demonstrate the opposite. Here are a few options for what you can do with your hands when you are in your rest position: Grasp a fist, Hands by your side, Gate. There are many other choices, so I encourage you to explore what's natural for you as well as what conveys the impression you want.

3. Gestures. If you use extreme gestures, you may seem dramatic, like Ace Ventura. However, if you don't use any gestures, you may convey you do not care. What to consider? Be careful of repetitive motions that can be distracting. Also, ensure your gestures are congruent. You don't want to say, "I'm looking forward to our next meeting" while swaying your head as if you are saying no.

4. Facial Expression. Be careful of RUF, also known as resting unfriendly face. RUF will create the impression that you are frustrated, annoyed, or plain unapproachable. Chances are you may not feel that way on the inside, but if you have an unapproachable look on your face, people will make unfair assumptions. If you have RUF, consider telling others you can look serious or focused when you are in the zone. If you have a serious look on your face, encourage people to speak to you, so they do not make the wrong assumptions.

5. Eye Contact. Too much eye contact is creepy, and too little is awkward. Eye contact also depends on culture. In western cultures, I would suggest holding eye contact 60-90% of the time when you are in a 1:1 conversation. If you speak to 2 or more people, I recommend maintaining eye contact over 90% of the time.

6. Volume. Too low can create the impression you are timid and shy. Too loud can come across arrogant or annoying. The appropriate volume conveys confidence. If you have a hard time projecting, take deeper breaths, open your mouth further, and get comfortable with feeling loud. Chances are you think you are louder than you sound.

7. Inflection. Have you ever been on a monotone call? Inspiring, right? No, it's painful! It comes across as if you do not care and do not want to be there. On the other hand, inflection conveys passion and shows you care. The easiest way to practice inflection is to read children's stories to cousins, nieces, friend's kids, or grandkids. If you read a story in a monotone voice to a child, they will likely say, "this stinks. You can stop reading the story!"

8. Filler Words or Hedging Words. This includes, "ums, ahs, and likes", which can create the impression you are less credible, lacking confidence, or uncomfortable. The other filler words people use are hedging words such as, "sort of, kind of, possibly." Hedging language will come across less certain and shows you are unwilling to take a stance. The solution is to replace fillers and hedging language with silence.

9. Pace. When you speak faster, it is engaging, but it can also be more challenging to pay attention to, especially with dense content. When most people are in the presence of a senior executive or someone important, they fall into the trap of speaking incredibly quickly. Why? People rush because they are nervous, don't want to waste the other person's time, or want to cram everything they want to say in a short period. If you rush, you will be creating the impression that you are nervous and uncomfortable around senior executives. Slow down with senior executives or clients so you can come across like a peer. Remember, you bring value too.

10. Structure. If you are organized, you are easy to follow, and it gives the impression you know what you are talking about. However, if you are unorganized or ramble, it can be distracting; this will give the image you are unprepared. Organize and structure your thoughts.

You may be thinking this is great for in-person interaction, but not many of these things are relevant when it comes to virtual meetings or phone calls. I disagree; all of them are relevant. Let me highlight a few. For example, if you dress professionally, you will likely feel more professional. Posture impacts how you feel on a call. Gestures convey more energy. If you smile over the phone, people will hear your smile. Lastly, if you are distracted and looking all over, it will come across because you won't be paying attention. All 10 of these factors influence the impression you create in-person, over the phone, or virtually. Take a moment to reflect on which bucket or buckets you would like to work on to improve the first impression you create with colleagues, prospects, or clients.

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