Those fateful first three seconds: How to enhance the impression you leave on others

Posted on Written by Mary Elston

Mary ElstonHis text message was brief. Would I be able to meet for coffee in an hour to give him input for his upcoming job interview? Perfect planning — my last call of the day was finished, and I was available.

It was not long before we found ourselves at a quiet table in a nearby Starbucks. My colleague and I have been giving each other feedback on business challenges for years. In this case he was preparing to interview for a fresh consulting gig.

A true professional, he wanted to test-drive his updated conversation techniques since the last time he had changed roles. In short, he wanted to make the absolute best first impression.

As we reviewed a few details that are part of the primary impact process, it got me thinking — we should be applying many of these same methods every day with new associates we meet, as well as with those we already know. Why bother? It’s easier than you think, and the benefits are worth the effort. The idea is to minimize behavior hindering your success and maximize actions promoting your full potential by continuously managing your imprint on others.

Exactly how long does it take to leave a first impression? Not long. Like deciding to make your coffee break yummier by reaching for a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, it takes about three seconds. That’s it. Experts tell us you have only three seconds to impact others or for you to evaluate them.

Because it happens so fast, you’ll want to have positive practices in play that automatically help you project your premium persona. This is important because many people unwittingly repeat negative behavior patterns that clandestinely curtail their capability and confidence. Let’s explore three items that you can always place in “ready” mode, with the goal of eliminating conduct that detracts from your value and replaces it with deeds that bolster your capacity.

How you look

We are all visual beings, and studies show that the majority of learning and impressing begins with optical cues. This means — like it or not — if you want to influence favorably and attract affirmative collaborations your appearance needs to reflect calibrated considerations.

Where you work and related dress policies usually dictate baseline standards. If you want to move up, you’ll want to wear attire for the level to which you aspire. Beyond the obvious grooming and clothing, there’s also how you carry yourself. Your stance, mannerisms and overall body language project a wealth of unspoken messages — assertive or insecure, engaged or disconnected, outgoing or introverted. Be mindful of facial expressions, too — smiles preferred over frowns.

One of the simplest ways to create a self-reliant demeanor is to sit and stand up straight. No slumped shoulders allowed. Get in the habit of checking your posture every 15 minutes or so. This is especially important if you work in front of a computer monitor all day — screen slouch easily creeps in.

No hunching over, fidgeting or staring out the window during meetings, either.  Participate! When lethargy sneaks up, get up and walk down the hall for five minutes to elevate your buoyancy level and get your body, brain and blood moving.

Stairwell nearby? Use it! Walking up several flights of stairs is my personal favorite for slogging off sluggishness and enriching energy equity. Be aware of how you appear and make your appearance count.

What you say

Ah yes, the tiniest, seemingly inconsequential comments can boost or break the mark you leave. What’s even more maddening is you may not realize that what you’re saying is undermining your potential.

I previously had a superb co-worker who was responsive and bright. She readily took on challenges and enthusiastically helped others. Along the way, some of her comments minimized her effectiveness, despite her work being top-notch. She didn’t realize she was frequently apologizing for nothing — saying “sorry to disturb you” or “sorry to interrupt” (neither was needed).

If an apology is required for something, admit mistakes and move on. Don’t let revelations of regret become a means for being overly polite or exposing insecurities.

Other verbal habits reducing your credibility are: a) using the word “just” to describe an action, such as “I was just giving an example,” instead of saying “here’s an example” — the latter expresses preparation and power, the former does not, b) making verbose comments that suggest you don’t have your thoughts together — the better alternative is to speak in one- or two-minute sound bites whenever possible; less is more, c) profuse use of the filler words um, ah, so, you know, etc., indicate nervousness and lack of readiness; instead rehearse leaving filler words out and taking brief silent pauses — pauses have impact when properly placed, and d) speaking too fast, which tends to convey anxiety — you may naturally speak quickly because you process at a speedy rate, but slowing your comments will project confidence and provide one other bonus. It compels people to listen.

How you interact

Like the decadent frappuccino recipe in which coffee, a brownie and white mocha syrup are only the beginning, so is the case with how you look and what you say, relative to how you interact.

There’s more to both formulas. Although select people may naturally interact with poise, for many it’s a skill that must be developed and practiced. Crucial interaction factors for maximizing self-assured conduct include: a) smiling when talking to co-workers, b) engaging eye contact at a relaxed rate (eliminate constantly glancing elsewhere), c) complimenting teammates on their strong suits and achievements, indicating you’re comfortable with their success, d) appreciating contributions from colleagues, which conveys team spirit and maturity, e) ditching negative commentary because people always remember downbeat remarks far longer than upbeat ones — not to mention when you spew off-putting statements. No matter how accurate, it may subtly brand you as being apprehensive and petty.

Two other influential items are far from trivial. Think hands and feet. Continue dispensing a positive influence by delivering a brief but firm eye-engaging handshake when you greet new acquaintances.

Follow a similar progressive path with your feet by employing an even, steady pace when walking to meetings (avoid rushing or dawdling). Both exude composure and self-assurance. While you’re at it, plan to listen and focus when colleagues are speaking, which encourages them to do the same with you.

Maximizing your competencies includes minimizing little things that detract from your demeanor as a capable, confident and consistent collaborator and leader. Another terrific part of this tale is that these are techniques you can apply for the better every day.

My friend was more than ready for his interview because he already displays these talents. How you look, what you say and how you interact will produce a big difference in how you are perceived — three things and three seconds for a great first impression.

You’ll want to remember to make these points part of what you do while being true to who you are. Sound challenging? It can be, but like any other worthwhile effort, with repetition and persistence you’ll be amplifying your aptitude and your success.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.

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