Most of us have heard our entire lives that first impressions are important. But did you know that within 3 seconds of a first encounter significant conclusions have already been made about who you are that can deeply affect your professional success, including whether you are smart, what your earning potential might be, and whether or not you are trustworthy?
For women, who already struggle to gain respect in the workplace, first impressions are especially important, and those formed within the first 3 seconds can make or break a woman’s career, setting the stage for promotions, effective team leadership, and respect from clients and colleagues.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy has been studying first impressions for years, and in her new book she hones in on what her research suggests may be the most important questions answered by first impressions: Can I trust this person? and Can I respect this person? Or, what she sums up as warmth (trust) and competence (respect), the later, she says, being the most important.
At Cake & Arrow we host a monthly group called the Archery Club devoted to exploring gender equality issues in the workplace and creating opportunities for growth and empowerment. This month, our meeting covered the topic of presenting ourselves, and discussed what we as women can do to make a first impression that commands respect and communicates warmth, whether it’s in a job interview, a client meeting, or when giving a presentation.
Do Your Homework
There’s a reason homework was drilled into all of us from such a young age. Never underestimate the power of being prepared. Depending on the situation, there are a lot of different ways of going about this, but one thing that is always worthwhile is knowing your audience. Take some time before your meeting or presentation to know a little something about who you will be talking to. This will not only help you tailor your speech or your content to better communicate with whoever this may be, but can also produce insights that might help you connect on a personal level. Maybe you’ll find that you and your client went to the same college or that one of your new colleagues, like you, also has a degree in anthropology. Not only does doing your homework help prepare you to come across as more competent, but it can also equip you with details to help you demonstrate warmth and develop trust.
Make your grand entrance
And we don’t mean showing up fashionably late. Remember that first impressions happen within the first 3 seconds, so let this be your excuse to spend too much time picking out what you want to wear (although those who know me know I don’t need this excuse). These 3 seconds start the moment you enter the room. So whatever the situation, make a point to be on time, and to make your presence known. This means avoiding situations where you have to scurry into the back of a meeting after it has started, or spend your first 3 minutes fumbling around with a Powerpoint presentation that won’t open. As women, we have the tendency to over apologize for ourselves, something which research says undermines not only our own confidence, but other people’s confidence in us. So when in situations where things aren’t necessarily going as planned, remember the importance of these first 3 seconds, and, if it's absolutely necessary, save the apologizing for later. Make your entrance grand.
Own your content
This one goes hand in hand with doing your homework. Knowing exactly what you want to get across in a meeting and how you want to do it is key. The importance of practice cannot be understated here. Although you may know in your head what you want to say, actually practicing it out loud will increase your confidence and also help you anticipate how others might react. When you feel confident you come across as competent, and you appear more trustworthy. Owning your content means not just knowing what you are talking about, but acting like you know it.
Practice active listening
With all this talk about how we present ourselves, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about us. It’s about other people too. A big part of how you come across to others has to do with how you respond and interact with them. Active listening–a listening technique widely used in counseling and conflict resolution, which involves concentrating on what others are saying, demonstrating understanding, and responding–is a proven method for showing people you care, and absolutely essential to gaining trust and demonstrating warmth. When we go into meetings or professional situations practicing and knowing exactly what we want to say, it can be easy to overlook what others are saying and how they are responding. This is where the real art comes in: balancing what you want to say, while actively listening and responding to others. What’s particularly helpful about this method is the way in which it can open others up to what you have to say while at the same time helping you understand how to communicate in a way that more fully addresses the needs and concerns of others.
Practicing the steps above with a trusted colleague or peer, and receiving feedback will help ensure that when the time comes to crush it in a meeting, review, or interview you are prepared. While 3 seconds is hardly enough time to do it all, keeping in mind that much depends on what happens not only in these 3 seconds, but simply in your first encounters with people, can help you take these encounters more seriously, and hopefully, more readily set yourself up for future success as a woman in the workplace.