How to Make the First Impression Count

It’s somewhat ironic that people say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” because that’s exactly how everyone does judge a book.

I built my book business with a huge amount of attention toward cover design. Even when I had 70 employees, a super talented in-house art director, and was using many outside freelancers, I still spent more time thinking about book cover design than any other single aspect of the business. The book cover for my generally unknown authors was the first impression people would have, and the first impression was everything.

Similarly, when you make a business presentation, you have just one chance to make a first impression.

Business Presentations and First Impressions

In a book I published entitled The New Professional Image: From Business Casual to the Ultimate Power Look, author Susan Bixler elaborates in significant length about the importance of making your first impression a good one when giving a presentation.

Bixler notes: Books are judged by their covers, houses are appraised by their curb appeal, and people are initially evaluated on how they choose to dress and behave. In a perfect world this is not fair, moral, or just, she says. What’s inside should count a great deal more. And eventually it usually does, but not right away. In the meantime, a lot of opportunities can be lost.

In each of our lives, Bixler says, there are hundreds of very important decisions that have already been made for us and that impact every aspect of our lives: our gender, skin color, height, the number of hair follicles on our head, the shape and size of our hands and feet, who our parents are, our siblings, our early childhood circumstances, and the country of our birth are all factors that we do not control or influence.

But what we can control is how we portray ourselves to the outside world. In transformational learning, the idea is to start at a place that is most visible and that allows for immediately recognized results. Wardrobe, grooming, and nonverbal communication are aspects of us that are apparent to the outside world. When combined, these factors can paint a picture of us as competent, knowledgeable, elegant, gracious, powerful, or anything else we choose to communicate.

Condense Your Presentation

Social psychologists studying the impact of imagery have determined that 30 seconds is how long it takes for someone meeting you for the first time to form a whole laundry list of determinations about your character and abilities. In 30 seconds, people form impressions of you based almost entirely on what they see – your clothes, hairstyle, smile, how you carry yourself, and the rest of your nonverbal communications. Appearances do count. These quick impressions can also be lasting ones. Psychologists call it the halo effect. The list of impressions includes your:

  • Educational level.
  • Career competence and success.
  • Personality.
  • Level of sophistication.
  • Trustworthiness.
  • Sense of humor.
  • Social heritage.

Now, 30 seconds doesn’t give you enough time to pull out your college transcript, showcase your resume, or present character references. It doesn’t allow time to explain that you have talent, skills, training, and a substantial list of truly satisfied employers and customers. But when your initial visual message is a positive one, the person you’ve just met will tend to assume that other aspects about you are equally positive. Conversely, if your visual message is negative, that new customer, client, co-worker, or prospective employer may not spend the time and effort to discover the talented person inside.

Appearances count in today’s world, as much or even more than in earlier decades. Rigid “dress for success” rules have yielded to new, more flexible guidelines that encompass casual business looks as well as traditional power suits. But as the speed of the business world accelerates, the importance of making a positive first impression increases, too.

Appearances count, not only in first impressions, but also in ongoing interactions. In his comprehensive research on communication, sociolinguist Albert Mehrabian found that in a face-to-face encounter, 7 percent of a verbal message comes from the words used; 38 percent comes from the vocal tone, pacing, and inflection; and 55 percent of the message is transmitted by the speaker’s appearance and body language.

Personal Appearance Is Everything

When a college career planning and placement center surveyed 150 employers, they discovered that the number one reason for rejecting an applicant after the first interview was poor personal appearance.

In fact, those employers surveyed ranked poor appearance higher than being a “hostile, overbearing know-it-all” (reason number nine) or “late for the interview without good reason” (reason number 28). Obviously hostility or tardiness aren’t minor infractions, but the findings certainly support the importance of appearance.

OK, so how should you dress for your presentation? I would use the same advice I give people interviewing for jobs: dress slightly more formally than how you expect your audiences to be dressed for the presentation. If the audience’s dress is all over the spectrum, from extremely casual to formal, I would opt for the upper quadrant of formality and conservativism.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • First impressions have a lasting effect.
  • It’s human nature to judge people at first glance.
  • You have control over how the world sees you.
  • Dress more formally than your audience.

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.

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