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How to create a Great First Impression: Step #1. Ignore the BS in Business Publications

By Judson Vaughn in  
January 10, 2021

Google the phrase “how to make a great first impression,” and you will see page after page of the same kind of advice that Dale Carnegie delivered in his seminal book, How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplein 1936.

So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t good advice, good advice, no matter how old it is?

No – not when it comes to making great first impressions.

And here’s why: It’s a little thing called science… Social Cognitive Neuroscience to be precise. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-cognition/social-cognitive-neuroscience/

The discovery that the earth was round and not flat, (eventually) changed the way most people thought about our planet. The discovery that germs can cause disease, changed the way surgeons prepared to operate on their patients. So the discoveries by cognitive neuroscientists about first impressions, need to change the way you think about first impressions.

I’ll start by directing you to the discoveries by one of the world’s most influential neuroscientists when it comes to first impressions. Alexander Todorov was a professor of psychology at Princeton University when I got to know him a few years ago, but today he is a Professor of Behavioral Science and Rosett Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. https://www.chicagobooth.edu/faculty/directory/t/alexander-todorov

Alex is the author of the extraordinary book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. https://www.amazon.com/Face-Value-Irresistible-Influence-Impressions/dp/0691167494 In Face Value, he details numerous scientific studies making it abundantly clear that the first impressions we make on strangers, happen in fractions of a second.

Below the photo is a quote from the Abstract of a study that Alex conducted at Princeton in 2006 with Janine Willis called, “First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face.” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01750.x

Just so we’re clear on this, “Ms” stands for milliseconds. There are 1,000 milliseconds in a second, so 100-Ms is a tenth of a second. That span of time is so brief that it’s hard to grasp, so I’ll give you a bit of context by telling you to BLINK.

That just took you between 100-150 Ms.

Now, regarding the conclusions of the Willis/Todorov study, lets look at what people decide about you in that amount of time:

“People often draw trait inferences from the facial appearance of other people. We investigated the minimal conditions under which people make such inferences. In five experiments, each focusing on a specific trait judgment, we manipulated the exposure time of unfamiliar faces. Judgments made after a 100-ms exposure correlated highly with judgments made in the absence of time constraints, suggesting that this exposure time was sufficient for participants to form an impression. In fact, for all judgments—attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness—increased exposure time did not significantly increase the correlations.”

People decide how attractive, likable, trustworthy and competent you are – in the blink of an eye – literally. Now when I write, “decide,” I’m not implying that people make “conscious decisions” about us in 100-ms. We can’t make any conscious decisions about anything in 100-ms. Conscious decisions are generated by the rational, decision-making structures (and decision-making system) within our brains, which are, generally speaking, our prefrontal cortex and our frontal lobes, which help you decide whether to order a pilsner or a glass of crisp Chablis with those oysters on the half shell. [Chablis from Burgundy of course, not the California crap – most of which isn’t even Chardonnay.] https://blog.millesima.co.uk/2014/04/15/chablis-oysters-perfect-pairing/

When we’re talking about making decisions in 100-ms, we’re talking about deciding without deciding, or as Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his book Blink https://www.amazon.com/Blink-Power-Thinking-Without-ebook/dp/B000PAAH3K “thinking without thinking,” which is what happens in our brain structures associated with our limbic system, the unconscious decision-making system in our brains. So to remind you that I’m talking about unconscious decisions when I’m using the words “decide” or “deciding” in the rest of this post, I’ll just italicize both.

Let’s pay close attention to this conclusion from the Willis/Todorov study: “Judgments… correlated highly with judgments made in the absence of time constraints.” In other words, once strangers have made their decisions about you in the first 100-ms of seeing you, their judgments about you will not change in any significant way during the next three minutes of your conversation, or during the following three hours, or even during the following three months.

Yeah, I know. That’s shocking.

Regarding the list (above) of things people decide about us in 100-ms, let’s focus on the most important of those things when it comes to human relationships: Trust. Why? Well, because trust is the foundation of first impressions. If someone instinctually distrusts you, it doesn’t matter how attractive or competent they think you are.

On August 6th, 2014, I got an email from The Journal of Neuroscience about a study headed by Jonathan Freeman at New York University, titled “Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces.” https://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/32/10573

I’ll cut to the chase. What Freeman and his colleagues discovered, is that people decide to trust or distrust you in 0.05 seconds. That, my friends, is 50-ms. Let’s call it “half-a-blink.” How about that for shocking?

Since the day I got that email and the entire study, whenever I’ve been teaching a group of executives, communication skills that will enable them to make great first impressions, or working with a client to prepare him or her for a trial, or teaching lawyers innovative trial advocacy skills, I’ve used Jon’s study to illustrate how fast people make decisions about all of us. And you know what? Some people absolutely refuse to believe me or the conclusions of Jon’s study.

You may not believe the conclusions of that study either, or the Willis/Todorov study, or you may not believe the results of the 1993 seminal study by Harvard’s Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-27364-001 that concluded that within six seconds of seeing you for the first time – before they’ve heard you speak – people will decide how honest, likable, supportive, optimistic, dominant, confident, accepting, empathetic, professional, enthusiastic, competent, warm and attentive you are. On page 11 and 12 of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell devotes two paragraphs to the Ambady/Rosenthal study, and he only noted one characteristic that was discerned during those six seconds. But that was enough to prod me into looking for the entire study. [My schooling and first profession was that of a gerontological researcher, so I love reading the details of studies; details that most people would find tedious.]

Text of the Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal study.

I was really glad I tracked it down, because that’s where I learned that the study concluded that within six seconds of people seeing you for the first time, even before they hear you say a word, they decide much more than Gladwell detailed – really important stuff like how honest, likable, supportive, optimistic, dominant, confident, accepting, empathetic, professional, enthusiastic, competent, warm and attentive you are. The study also concluded that – following those 6 seconds – months of constant contact with you will not change their judgments of you in any significant way.

You may find that hard to believe. In fact, you may not believe the conclusions of any of these studies or of dozens of other studies that support these conclusions – because they just seem to defy common sense and logic… kind of like in 1850 when it probably seemed nonsensical and illogical for surgeons to think that they could kill their patients in the days or weeks following an operation, just because they didn’t wash their hands before the surgery. And it must have seemed illogical in 1250, to think that the earth could be round when someone standing on an ocean shore could look out over that ocean and clearly see that the ocean – and thus the earth – was flat.

Shifting gears a bit: A Harvard Professor called George Santayana (1863-1952) is credited with coining the phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” which is often rephrased as, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”

So the gestalt of this post is, “Those who do not know the neuroscience of first impressions are condemned to keep making bad ones.”

Since 1993, I’ve been teaching people things I discovered in the mid-1980s about how and why trust is granted or denied, and how they can create the exact first impression they want to create – within seconds. I made my discoveries and developed my theories on trust and first impressions as a result of years of empirical qualitative research – surprisingly during my years in Los Angeles as a character actor. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0891203/ [Below are scenes with me and (1) Brad Pitt (Kalifornia), (2) Kevin Costner (The War), (3) Gabriel Byrne (A Simple Twist of Fate) (4) Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), (5) Lea Thompson (Stolen Babies), and (6) Joe Morton (Miss Evers’ Boys).]

Now back in the mid-80s there was no empirical quantitative research to support my discoveries and theories, but now there is, which is what you’ve been reading.

I’ve discovered that there are six things that determine whether or not a stranger will trust you instinctually, and subsequently will continue to trust you. One of those six things will enable you to secure trust within 50-ms of a stranger seeing you for the first time, and the other five will enable you to maintain that trust and be viewed as honest, likable, professional, empathetic (and all the other traits detailed in the Ambady/Rosenthal study) during your entire business or personal relationship with that person. I call these six things (logically), The Six Elements of Instinctual Trust. They are a precise, interconnected group of nonverbal and verbal skills that will enable you to make great first impressions in any situation. We teach these things in First Impressions HQ’s foundational online course, “Trust: The Reason First Impressions Matter.” The bad news is that it will cost you $499.00 to take the course so that you can learn the specific communication skills (and the neuroscience behind those skills) that will enable you to make great first impressions every time.

But here’s the good news: The Second Element of Instinctual Trust is something that you can learn for free, as you will see at the bottom of this article. It is a precise skill that will enable you to secure trust from strangers in “half-a-blink,” meaning 50-ms.

Okay, now that you know a bit about the neuroscience of first impressions and how fast they are actually created, let’s get to the BS that you can find in the leading business publications. [Our refutations of the BS are in ALL CAPS.]

The Harvard Business Review – IS WRONG

How to Make a Great First Impression
https://hbr.org/2016/09/how-to-make-a-great-first-impression

1. Prepare talking points. YOU NOW KNOW THAT FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE MADE BEFORE YOU’VE HAD TIME TO SAY A WORD AND THAT HAS TO COLOR EVERY BIT OF ADVICE YOU WILL READ BELOW HERE.

2. Be aware of your body language. HOW VAGUE IS THAT? Use Power Posing. FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WATCHED AMY CUDDY’S TED TALK – AND LOVED (AS MUCH AS I DID), HERE IS THE INCONVENIENT SCIENTIFIC TRUTH – POWER POSING HAS BEEN DISCREDITED SINCE 2016: https://www.npr.org/2016/10/01/496093672/power-poses-co-author-i-do-not-believe-the-effects-are-real NOT ONLY HAVE OTHER RESEARCHERS PROVED THAT “POWER POSING” DOES NOT WORK, THE PRINCIPAL CONCLUSION OF THE STUDY THAT MADE AMY CUDDY FAMOUS, HAS NOW BEEN REFUTED BY THE LEAD AUTHOR OF THAT STUDY, DANA CARNEY. [SIMILAR NAME, DIFFERENT PERSON] SO THOSE OF YOU MEN AND WOMAN OUT THERE CAN CUT THE WONDER WOMAN POSING IN THE BATHROOM BEFORE YOUR BIG PRESENTATION AT WORK; IT DOES NOT INCREASE YOUR TESTOSTERONE LEVEL, WHICH IS WHAT THE STUDY CLAIMED.

3. Play to your strengths. REALLY? IN 0.05 OF A SECOND?

4. Find something in common. REALLY? IN 0.05 OF A SECOND?

5. Engage and be engaging. NOTHING VAGUE ABOUT THAT ADVICE

6. Follow up. FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE NOT CREATED BY WHAT YOU DO HOURS OR DAYS AFTER YOU MEET SOMEONE

Inc. – IS WRONG

8 Proven Ways to Make a Great First Impression in Business

https://www.inc.com/young-entrepreneur-council/8-proven-ways-to-make-a-great-first-impression-in-business.html

FIRST OF ALL, WHEN THE TITLE OF AN ARTICLE INCLUDES A PHRASE LIKE “8 Proven Ways,” LOOK FOR THE PROOF. YOU WON’T FIND ANY “PROOF” OF ANY OF THE 8 WAYS WITHIN THIS ARTICLE.

  1. Research your partner or client. THIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD THING TO DO, BUT IT WILL NOT AFFECT THOSE FIRST 50-MS.

2. Rehearse your elevator pitch before you meet. ANOTHER GOOD IDEA THAT HAS NO AFFECT ON THOSE FIRST 50-MS.

3. Explain the problem you solve. IN 50-MS?

4. Show off your results and how you achieve them. IN 50-MS?

ARE YOU SENSING A PATTERN HERE? OF COURSE YOU ARE, AND YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THAT NOT ONE OF THESE “8 Proven Ways to Make a Great First Impression in Business” WILL HAVE ANY AFFECT ON THOSE FIRST 50-MS.

5. Listen to them.

6. Be authentic and enthusiastic.

7. Mirror their tone and body language. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST COMMON PIECES OF ADVISE THAT IS PRINTED OVER AND OVER AND OVER IN POPULAR BUSINESS PUBLICATIONS, AND SPOUTED AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN BY EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP COACHES AND MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKERS. HERE IS WHY IT IS HORRIBLE ADVICE: MIRRORING SOMEONE’S TONE AND BODY LANGUAGE IS THE ACT OF FOLLOWING. LEADERS TO NOT FOLLOW, THEY LEAD. IN OUR ONLINE COURSES, WE TEACH PEOPLE SPECIFIC SKILLS THAT SHOW THEM HOW TO USE THEIR BODIES AND TONE OF VOICE TO GET OTHERS TO FOLLOW THEM.

8. Show your passion. YEAH, IN 50-MS.

Business Insider – IS WRONG

1. Smile. NOPE. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO SMILE. SINCERE SMILES ARE GENERATED BY YOUR CONSCIOUS CONTACT WITH ANOTHER PERSON. LONG BEFORE YOU HAVE TIME TO CREATE A SMILE, YOUR TIME IS UP.

2. The right handshake. NOPE. THEY’VE MADE THEIR DECISIONS ABOUT YOU LONG BEFORE YOU GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO SHAKE THEIR HAND. [BY THE WAY, IN OUR TRUST COURSE, YOU (DEAR READER) WILL LEARN WHAT THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF SHAKING HANDS WHEN IT COMES TO TRUST IS. YOU MAY THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW. AS YOU WILL SEE, YOU DON’T.

3. Introductions. HOPE YOU HAVE A NAME THAT YOU CAN SAY IN 50-MS

4. Speak clearly. DURING EACH ONE OF THOSE 50-MS

5. Make eye contact. MAKING EYE CONTACT IS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME FOR CONSCIOUS CHOICES

6. Use body language. NOTHING AMBIGUOUS ABOUT THAT.

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So stop paying attention to the BS advice when it comes to making great first impressions. That advice was all fine and dandy… in 1936. But this is 2021 and we know what germs are and that the earth is not flat… and we know that “Speaking clearly,” “Explaining the problem you solve,” and “Mirroring their tone and body language,” will not enable you to make a great first impression because none of those things can be accomplished in 50-ms.

At this point you may be thinking, “So what the hell can I do in 50-ms to enable me to create a great first impression?”

Well, I’ll tell you. Click this link https://firstimpressionshq.com/communication-skills/, and scroll down the page until you see this:

If you watch this lesson, I guarantee that as you are walking down a street or walking through an airport or a shopping mall, it will change the way you see the world. And if you learn the specific skill this lesson teaches, and if you apply that skill every day – all day long – it will change the way the world sees you.

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Judson Vaughn is the CEO of First Impressions HQ and JurisPerfect.

CONTACT: JudsonVaughn@FirstImpressionsHQ.com

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