When I was young I can distinctly remember my mother getting me ready for school and drumming it into me that first impressions count as she neatly combed my side parting (I was ahead of my time in terms of men’s hairstyles) whilst getting me ready for school. She’d also often tut to herself if she saw that my shoes were scuffed or my shirt untucked and exclaimed that my teachers would think I was slovenly. Fortunately as a 7 year old boy I was quite savvy and knew it was distinctly uncool to turn up at the school looking like a miniature Will from the Inbetweeners. So once I was out of eyesight at the school gates, the short walk to the classroom enabled my shirt to become slightly untucked, the top button on the shirt undone and the parting ruffled to seek more of a ‘just out of bed, hot mess look’ to blend in with the other (slovenly in my mother’s eyes) children, rather than to stand out like a sore thumb sporting my mother’s image of ‘sophisticated wet look gel cool’.
Nevertheless despite my early rebellion (definitely for the better at the time), it turns out my mother was right all along, and her words are something that have stuck with me through the years. If there’s one thing that I have learnt in my career to date it is that making a good first impression is paramount. These first impressions are formed within the first few moments of meeting someone, and combined with how you then behave, your first impression on others can make or break your career.
For most of us, making a good first impression is second nature and preparation is seen as a key part of this. Whether in the world of work if it is a job interview or a pitch to a client, or if it is in our social lives, for example on a first date or your first attendance at sports practice – it is those first few seconds, or at most a few minutes whereby others impressions of you will be formed. This is not only based on the way you dress and your overall appearance, but also how you conduct yourself and how you behave, including picking up on softer clues such as body language and general demeanour. Scientists have backed this up with studies showing that the power of our intelligent unconscious mind is powerful enough to create a lasting impression of a new person after only just ten seconds, compared to possible years of evaluation with the rational part of our minds.
Nowadays our online first impression is also just as important. When we look at a picture of a face we rapidly form judgements about a person’s character, for example whether they are friendly, trustworthy or competent. Even though it is not clear how accurate they are, these first impressions can influence our subsequent behaviour (for example, judgements of competence based on facial images can predict election results). The impressions we create through images of our faces (“avatars” or “selfies”) are also becoming more and more important in a world where we increasingly get to know one another online rather than in the flesh. In fact a recent study out of the University of York in 2014 showed that we associate specific facial traits with someone’s personality.
However the most common failing I’ve seen is that some people are very good at making people fall for their first impressions, whether that is because they are smooth talkers, looked the part or through sheer weight of achievements listed on their CV. Dependent on the situation this allows them to get the job, get the promotion, get the girl, win the hearts and minds etc. However through time, sometimes within days, the façade has worn off and the confident, seemingly polished exterior hides other, perhaps negative traits. This is the crux of my post and I conclude with a question for you to ponder.
What first impression do you give off?