First impressions … the decision is made as you walk through the door

You cannot avoid making a first impression, whether you are pitching, presenting or networking at a conference!  Recently published research emphasises why it is so important to get it right.

As Warren Buffett, the American business magnate once said: ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that you’ll do things differently’. 
The scientists can’t agree on just how many seconds it is, but in an instant someone has made a decision about you.  In a blink of an eye we decide if someone is ‘friend’ or ‘foe’.  It is what we are ‘hard-wired’ to do.  For our cave-dwelling predecessors it could be the difference between life and death – today, in a business environment it may not be so extreme, but there remains a lot at stake.

It goes deeper than judging books by covers.  Visual impact may be the initial sense to kick in, rapidly followed by sound, smell and kinaesthetic, that is touch and how someone makes us feel.  These are all ‘clues’ being vetted by our subconscious producing a ‘gut’ feeling of ‘yay – I want to get to know this person and find out more’ or ‘o-oh, I’m getting out of here …!’ Your first impression impacts on your reputation, profile and future relationships.

In a business context perhaps more worrying is the research around getting it wrong.  Psychologists suggest it can take a further eight interactions to change someone’s mind - how many times do we get the opportunity for a second go, never mind an eighth! 
It’s a human instinct that we like to be ‘right’.  As a result, our brains seek clues to back up our first impression – whatever that may have been – good or bad.  All the more reason to get it right first time.

Recent research by Harvard Professor and Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has shed light on what it is we are assessing about someone in that first impression.  We consider two things: can I trust this person; and do I respect them?  Psychologists interpret this as the behaviours of warmth and competence.  Cuddy’s research went on to reflect that in a business capacity the majority would rate competence as most important here – we all want to be seen as good at our job – however it is trust, or warmth which needs to be established first.  Competence is important, but without establishing trust, it can appear manipulative and off-putting.

We frequently hear that ‘people buy people’ and the research backs this up.  Imagine you are recruiting for a team member and you have the choice of a candidate who is technically 100% excellent but lacks personality and warmth; or an enthusiastic personality who may score 80% on expertise and fits the dynamic of the office.  Attitude or aptitude? I know which I’d go for every time.

When clarifying and communicating an effective personal brand, it’s about being remembered for the right reasons.  Be ‘so good they can’t ignore you’, whatever the context: networking; presenting; a pitch or promotion.  We all have a personal brand – Jeff Bezos of Amazon is often quoted as saying ‘it’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room’. Are you managing yours, or are you leaving it to chance?  It all starts with a first impression ...

Deborah Ogden is Managing Director of DO Positive Impact, working with clients to clarify and communicate an effective personal brand and present with impact.