Redefining First Impressions

We’ve all heard this phrase a million times – “you can only make one first impression.”

Yes, we should absolutely think carefully about how we come across to others and attempt to make a positive first impression, especially with people from whom we may want something, whether it’s a job, a second date, or an audition.

But have you ever felt shackled by the pressure of needing to make a good impression? Has it ever prevented you from reaching out to someone, and making an impression at all, because you didn’t feel “ready”?

I have numerous clients in this situation. They may be sitting on contact information for an influential person, waiting until they are “ready” – technically, artistically, and otherwise. However, often times they never actually feel ready, so the timeline for reaching out extends further and further into the distance.

This is not to say that one should disregard the importance of professionalism and preparedness in relationship building. But keep in mind that there is much more to making an impression than having an impressive resume, list of accomplishments, and high-level musical performances.

First impressions are largely formed on a subconscious level in the first seconds of any interpersonal communication. Obviously, meeting someone in person conveys the most amount of information to others, but think how quickly we are to judge those we speak to for the first time on the phone, or how we perceive the sender of an email.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Blink, he describes how first impressions are largely based on subconscious judgments, not on logic and merit. Imagine leaving someone with the feeling “there’s something about him that I like. I want to learn more.” – before you ever say a word or play a note.

Gladwell also talks about an experiment performed by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University to see whether quality of teaching could be evaluated purely based on non-verbal cues. They filmed several teachers in class and present short excerpts of those videos to a panel of observers – with no sound. The result?

“The observers, presented with a ten-second silent video clip, had no difficulty rating the teachers on a fifteen- item checklist of personality traits.”

Ambady and Rosenthal found that personality trait analysis was unchanged, even when the clips were as short as two seconds!

All this is to say that the first impression we make is based on the most subtle elements of our communication, and not (or less) on accomplishments and our level of musical preparation. Body language, tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, presence, energy – these elements can be hard to quantity and most of us are not aware of how we use these them to our advantage or disadvantage.

On the one hand, this may put our ability to make a good first impression out of our control because it depends on elements that typically sit outside our awareness and conscious effort.

But on the other hand, what if we deepened our awareness of these first-impression-making qualities and put some intention behind them? What do we seek to communicate through our body language, tone of voice, and overall presence? If we can gain mastery over these elements, then perhaps we can lower the stakes of a first impression. Our success may ride on the first 15 seconds (or less) of our interaction, and not just on what we say or do afterwards. In fact, according to the research described in Gladwell’s article, what we say or do afterwards will likely only confirm and strengthen the observer’s first impression. Do some research on the “halo effect” if you want to learn more about that.

And, let’s remember, what is the point of a first impression? From my perspective, it should not just be to achieve a one-time win (getting the job, landing the audition), but to plant the seed for a longer-term goal: referral, mentorship, collaboration, or other synergistic relationship.

So here’s our suggestion: Be clear on how you want to come across and what you intend to communicate in the first few seconds of connecting with someone. Body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice. Make sure your ducks are in a row in terms of your materials, skill level, and consistency. Then, go make some first impressions!

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