It takes less than 10 seconds for people to decide what kind of person they think you are.
What a quaint idea!
In fact, Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov have demonstrated that study participants make judgments about a person’s competence and trustworthiness in as little as a tenth of a second.
Why do we do this?
One of the oldest skills our brains developed was the ability to tell friend from foe and make a judgment of the psychological state of the other. So, when my ancestors walked out of their cave and encountered a stranger, they asked themselves, “Is this person going to try to kill me or should I recruit them to help me hunt a woolly mammoth?” Their lives depended on making the right call in a split second.
Like it or not, we are stuck with a brain that shares a lot of prehistoric circuitry and software.
Here’s a couple of ideas on how you can make these primal facts of life work for you, not against you.
Leverage it as a speaker. If that’s how quickly people form impressions, then you should have a comprehensive plan for that impression. Your goal is to exude confidence. It should be detectable in your smile, eye contact, posture, and your stride to the podium. Before you even take the stage, the audience’s brains are primed to look for telltale cues about you, so your purposeful demeanor must be on display as soon as they can see you. This is not the time to thumb nervously through notes, pace, or mumble to yourself. Think of this as a SpaceX Rocket launch sequence. A lot of stuff has to go right at T-minus 60 seconds for the mission to be successful.
Fight it as an audience member. One of my favorite professors in graduate school was the wise and wonderful Dr. Gerry Bell. He once asked the class, “Have you ever had a negative first impression of a speaker?” Maybe your pet peeve is arrogance, and a guest lecturer strides up to the podium and starts name-dropping and giving you an E-ticket ride through their resume. My unevolved brain shouts sarcastically, “Well, good for you buddy!” Dr. Bell taught us that these were the speakers you had to pay extra careful attention to. Why so? It’s easy to listen intently to someone you naturally connect with, but you have to work a lot harder to discover the nuggets of wisdom from someone you don’t.
Whether you are fighting first impressions or leveraging them, know their substantial power. Forewarned is forearmed!