The Science of First Impressions: How to Wow the Audience Every Time

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We’ve all heard the warning (probably more than once) that we only get one chance to make a first impression. Here at Quantified, where we’re obsessed with helping leaders and speakers improve their audience impact, we take that warning very seriously, and we know that not only do you have just one shot at a first impression, but you have very little time to make it.

  • Our public speaking research shows that, when you’re on stage, you have only fifteen seconds to make a good first impression.
  • In a recent survey from the dating website It’s Just Lunch, 25 percent of participants decide whether to see a “first date” again within five minutes or less—and 16 percent make that decision immediately.
  • Princeton psychologists have found that it takes just a tenth of a second to form impressions of strangers based on their faces—and longer exposures don’t alter those impressions much.
  • Quantified’s research, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, demonstrates that 90 percent of listeners’ first impressions of a speaker remain unchanged after hearing the content of the message.

The verdict is in: first impressions are critical, and they happen at lightning speed. But why do they happen so quickly? Researchers attribute this to the emergence of large societies as opposed to small, tight-knit communities where everyone knows one another well. Face Value author Alexander Todorov explains that physiognomists would argue we’ve developed this instinct to create quick first impressions in order to make it safer to live with strangers. Are they trustworthy? Do we need to go into fight or flight? A glance at a newcomer’s face can tell us everything we need to know (or so we think).

When you’re the newcomer, you want to be sure the room sees the characteristics you want them to see in you. So how can you be certain you’re making your first impressions good ones?

Five Keys to Great First Impressions

The first impression is rooted in your communication. And that’s not necessarily the words you say—there may not be time for that—but what you’re communicating in your facial expression, body language, and overall mannerisms and appearance. Here are five ways to ensure you’re sending the right message.

1. Be On Time

Whether you realize it or not, you start making your first impression the moment you’re scheduled to arrive, whether it’s a first date, a formal presentation, or a team meeting. If you’re running late, your audience is forming their first impression without you. And it’s not a good one. No matter the real reason, lack of punctuality communicates that you’re disorganized, lazy, and/or disrespectful.

Of course, we all find ourselves behind sometimes. When that happens, you can avoid blowing your first impression by letting your audience know you’re running late (and why) before the appointed time and sharing your new E.T.A. It’s still not great, but if they know you’re on your way and they know why you’re late, they’ll hold off on that first impression.

2. Practice Appropriate Facial Expressions

If the experiments from Princeton are to be believed, your first impression is largely based on the look on your face when you walk into the room. The first step to controlling that impression is to avoid resting mean face: practice making sure that, even when you’re in neutral, your facial expression is open and inviting. This means you’re not furrowing your eyebrows or turning your mouth down into a frown. As humans, we’re significantly more attuned to angry faces than happy ones (it’s an evolutionary defense mechanism), so your audience will read your resting mean face as unfriendly, and they’ll be reluctant to warm up to you.

But further than that, be cognizant of matching your facial expressions to the circumstances. You won’t make a great first impression walking into a celebration with a grimace, or a funeral with a grin. While you want to keep your facial expressions (and your gestures and movements) natural and organic, practice being aware of what they’re communicating to the room.

3. Dress the Part

This isn’t about fancy clothes or designer labels; it’s about dressing appropriately for the occasion. Just like being late communicates a lack of respect, so does showing up disheveled. And in the same way incongruous facial expressions can send the wrong message, so can showing up in a cocktail dress to a business meeting or arriving in sweats to a dinner party.

Again, stay true to your personal style—inauthenticity doesn’t help anybody—but do be cognizant of what you’re communicating with your appearance.

4. Stand Up Straight

You know power poses work wonders for your confidence, but your posture also affects the impression you leave on others. In a study from The University of Texas at Austin, participants were able to guess strangers’ personality traits, based on their posture in natural poses, with 90 percent accuracy. Furthermore, research from Amy Cuddy shows that perceptions of trustworthiness and confidence account for up to 90 percent of a first impression. So staring with a confident posture can work wonders in building that initial trust with your audience.

Work on being aware of your posture as you enter rooms. Are you slouching or standing up straight? (And, going back to a previous point, is your neutral face open and confident or closed-off and angry?) These things speak volumes before you even say a word.

5. When You Do Start Talking, Maintain Your Confidence

Others’ first impressions of you may be all-but solidified before you open your mouth, but the way you communicate verbally is still critical in building that early relationship. So be sure that, when you do speak, you maintain that confident air you’ve built through your body language. Keep your voice strong and clear, and avoid hedging language (like “ums” and “ers” and “maybes”) that makes you sound unsure of yourself.

In both social and professional situations, your first impression is a critical foundation for your relationship with your audience. It forms fast, and it’s hard to change after the fact. But by focusing on verbal and nonverbal communication signals that make you appear confident, open, and trustworthy, you’ll be sure to knock it out of the park every time.