Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Those first sixty seconds. You first impression can have powerful implications for your career

Can you judge a book by its cover? Apparently you can, or so says body language communications expert Tonya Reiman. At a recent IABC southern regional board meeting in Tampa Florida, Reiman had us, a group of communications professionals, describe how we perceived each other within one hour of our meeting. For the most part, all of us were strangers but Reiman did an extraordinary activity that had me convinced that body language is perhaps the most influential way to communicate and navigate successfully toward a desired outcome.

Here’s what Reiman did. She asked the fifty or so board and chapter leaders gathered in the room to pin a white sheet of paper on our backs so that others could write their first impressions. So there we were, all 50 strangers scribbling adjectives on each others backs. Like Curious George, I was anxious to see what impressions I had created and dragged my paper off the second the exercise was over. Whew. What relief! My peers and I were on par. Many wrote that I was creative, innovative, ideas driven, fun. Yet no one got that I was also focused, persistent and business savvy.

What was the bottom line? I learned that the first few seconds you meet someone counts. And we are judged on everything including what we wear, how we speak, the way we fold our legs and even how we sit. It is imperative therefore to get those first impressions right. According to Reiman: “Each time we meet someone we take a small slice of their personality, a tiny sample of their entire life, and form interpretations. In essence, we assume it is a 100% portrayal of their personality. Once we form an attitude or belief about someone, it takes a lot to change it. In fact, it is almost impossible to reverse a first impression.”
The research bears her out. Studies show that if you make the wrong first impression just once you can counteract it, but it will take heaps of positive interactions to change those initial perceptions. The pain may be worth the gain. Positive first impressions will get Jane the job, Joe a deal on a car and Jasper a home away from the dog shelter. Reiman advises that upon walking into a room full of strangers you should think about if you are smiling the right way, walking the right way, standing in a confident position, shaking hands the right way, sitting in the right position, making enough eye contact, nodding your head at the appropriate times.

Sounds confusing? It really is not upon if you think about it more closely. We’ve all had those moments where we judged someone subconsciously and taken actions based on those first impressions. I fell in love with my husband the minute I met him. I judged my dear friend Nadine Johnson to be wise the minute she opened her mouth and I thought my new neighbour obnoxious the second he pulled into driveway in an SUV blaring loud music even though he knew we were having a family thanksgiving. Those first impressions have remained the same even today.

When I came back from Tampa, it’s not that I was self conscious but I figured if first impressions count so much I was going to be in control of shaping my own. One week later I clipped back one side of my Afro that I would normally allow to go free and wore a black business suit; I left “my work will always speaks for itself” attitude at the door and went after a big account; I was determined to look a particular part. I didn’t win, but I obviously scored some good points because my firm was called back to work on another great project.

All of this of course raises some important questions: What image are you projecting? Do you send a professional image to the business world? Your first impression is a statement of who you are. Become self aware. Self perception is a big part of communication. It's how we see ourselves and how we allow others to see us.


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