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5 myths you’ve been told about first impressions

Everyone knows first impressions are critical, but this is why other factors matter more than you think.

5 myths you’ve been told about first impressions
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We’ve all heard the expression, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” In fact, research has indicated that within the first seven seconds of meeting someone, we draw conclusions about that person that stick with us.

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Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls the power of first impressions “the halo effect.” We form quick impressions based on the way someone looks, and we tend to discount later things that contradict what we’ve observed. So it’s important to create this positive first impression if you want to have this “halo” work to your benefit.

But there is another system in our brain that checks in after that initial interaction. Kahneman calls this our “remembering self,” which triggers a more considered response and often gives life to first impressions. So, while the following common pieces of advice can be useful at the outset, relying on them too much can be problematic and will not necessarily win you that job or that new relationship. The sustained efforts you make—and your flexibility in social interactions—often overshadow that initial impression.

1. You must smile

Smiling creates a strong first impression—in fact studies have indicated that a smile is the most memorable feature after first meeting someone. So use the smile to show warmth and keen interest in the person you’re connecting with. But if you keep smiling through the job interview—in an obvious and constant way—you’ll turn your future employer off.

A constant smile soon becomes artificial-seeming and prevents you from looking like you have a deeper self. I have interviewed many job candidates, and I easily tire of a person who can’t stop smiling. It’s the same with any facial expression; if it’s unchanging, it will soon seem fake.

2. Take up space

Amy Cuddy, in her book Presence, talks about the power of expansive body language and the positive messages it sends to those we’re talking to. She says that such big gestures can also make us feel “more powerful, confident, and assertive, less stressed and anxious, and happier and more optimistic.” But too much of a good thing can be bad. If you rely too much on these big gestures throughout a conversation, you may come across as overbearing.

3. You have to dress up

Common wisdom is that the way you’re dressed can create an excellent first impression. It’s true, but it will not have the definitive impact that some think it has. I once interviewed a young man for a position in my firm, The Humphrey Group. Typically, I looked for talent that was well-dressed.

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When Andrew came in for his interview, he was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. He was an actor, and that was how people in his profession generally dressed. While initially I wondered why he’d come in to an interview so casually dressed, I was impressed with his communication skills, his energy, and his presence. So I offered him the job and bought him a suit, which he wore every time he taught.

4. Nail the small talk

A recruiter’s initial impression of you—or anyone’s for that matter—will depend in part on your ability to make light conversation. But rely on chitchat throughout the meeting, and you won’t be seen as a true contender for the job.

It’s nice to show off your social skills by beginning with comments about the person interviewing you or about the company. For example, “I love your office” or “This company has a great vibe.” In a networking conversation, you might get even more personal with comments like “I love your shoes,” or “Great to meet you; I’ve heard so much about you.”

But keep that up and the other person will wonder if you have anything more serious to contribute. So by all means, start with friendly banter, but move to more important conversation and show why you’re there and what you can deliver. For example: “I’ve been looking forward to this interview because the position, and this company, greatly interests me.” (For a full discussion of how to structure your interview remarks, see my recent book, Impromptu.)

 5. Stay positive

Still another tip for creating a great first impression is to be positive, but carry this all the way through a conversation and your listener will think you have only one gear.

At the outset, say something positive about the other person, the company they represent, the opportunity, and the interview. Set the stage for a vigorous conversation and a positive conclusion to the exchange.

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But if you are only positive throughout the conversation, you may sound like someone who favors the superficial over the complex. If it’s a job interview, you’ll want to get into more complex issues, like salary expectations, culture, mentoring, employee benefits, and areas where you want to grow and learn. These require a deft touch. You’ll need to raise issues that indicate you expect something from them. The same is true for networking conversations or an initial sales meeting with a client.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She also recently established EQUOS Corp., a company focused on delivering emotional intelligence training to the fitness, medical, and business sectors

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