First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You

Over the past eight months I’ve been working through a series of skill building projects intended to develop a wide range of new skills, including in data science (1, 2), entrepreneurship (3, 4), web writing (Challenge 8 from 5), and Spanish (6).

One skillset I consider to be very important, and that I often have major struggles with, is communication skills. I have been making an effort to improve in this area by occasionally attending Toastmasters to work on my public speaking, doing daily video logs to work on expressing myself better, and completing Michael Riley’s Next Level Comfort Zone Challenges to become more open socially.

Although I’ve seen some progress in my communication skills, especially in my public speaking ability and my general comfort socially, an area I still have difficult with is making solid first impressions that I’m satisfied with.

One thing I find particularly challenging when meeting new people is effectively conveying a mix of both confidence and warmth.

Highly charismatic people seem to be really good at this. They effectively convey a mix of the masculine energy of power, inner strength, and confidence, with the feminine energy of love and warmth.

Olivia Fox Cabane gets at this in her book The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism:

“The equation that produces charisma is actually fairly simple. All you have to do is give the impression that you possess both high power and high warmth.”

She describes power as “being perceived as able to affect the world around us, whether through influence on or authority over others, large amounts of money, expertise, intelligence, sheer physical strength, or high social status”.

She goes on to describe warmth as simply “goodwill toward others”.

Effectively conveying both confidence and warmth when meeting people for the first time sounds easy in theory, but, at least in my experience, appears to be much easier said than done.

However, I am really excited this week after finishing the book First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You by Ann Demarais and Valerie White, because the book has provided me with a much deeper understanding of how to make good first impressions and has given me so many practical action steps to improve in this area.

For the remainder of the present article I will outline some of my key takeaways from the book that will hopefully be of use to you, and get into my first action steps for improving at more effectively conveying confidence and warmth with new people I meet and making better first impressions.

First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You

In this book, the authors describe that the most important reason to understand the first impression you make is that it may not accurately reflect who you are — that is, how you really know yourself to be. You may be misperceived in ways that you are unaware of. Most people have a few blind spots — areas where they send unintended messages that put others off. The aim of the authors is to inform you, not to change who you are. They help identify gaps between how you think you come across and how others actually perceive you.

“A good first impression is the one that reflects the real you. If you are presenting the best of yourself, the self you want to share, then you are making the impression that is right for you.”

As they go on to say, focusing on what others are feeling about themselves is the secret to making a positive first impression. How you come across to others is less about what you say or how you feel and more about how you make people feel about themselves in your presence.

Below I will outline two themes from the book — four ways to be charismatic by being socially generous, and seven fundamentals of a first impression.

How To Be Socially Generous

A healthy balance between these four things is charismatic:

  • Appreciation: let someone know you understand and respect them for their positive qualities
  • Connection: find where you intersect with someone. For example, a mutual friend, common interests, or similar experiences
  • Elevation: elevate other’s moods. Do this by smiling, being in the moment, acting playful or entertaining, and directing your attention to the positive and humorous elements in the situation
  • Enlightenment: discuss interesting facts, ideas and perspectives, and current events

Seven Fundamentals Of A First Impression

These seven fundamentals make up the core of the book. Here I will describe each of the fundamentals and give a few of my key takeaways relating to each fundamental.

If you would like to make better first impressions, they recommend focusing on one or two things you’d like to improve at a time until it feels natural, rather than getting totally overwhelmed with making massive changes all at once.

  1. Accessibility

This is how open you seem to contact. It is made up of the way you hold your body, hold their gaze, and how you respond and engage with them. Do you take initiative to introduce yourself? What mood do you project? How actively do you set a comfortable tone? What do you actually say?

If you want to appear open and interested in meeting someone, you should be smiling, with a relaxed posture, making eye contact, and staying present in the moment. You can convey warmth to others by smiling, nodding, and appearing similar to others (e.g. dressing appropriately for a party or event).

You convey your mood by your physical energy, facial expressions, emotional tone of speech, vocabulary (e.g. use of weak vs powerful words), and focusing on the positive or negative in a situation.

The authors recommend noticing what mood you’re in when you meet someone, and attempting to stretch it up one notch. Smile a tiny bit more. Use powerful words such as ‘incredible’ and ‘beautiful’. Don’t try to look better than others (e.g. trying to convey you have a better job, make more money, or are more intelligent). Make an effort to be well groomed, stylish, and comfortable with your appearance. Take the initiative to introduce yourself. Start a conversation by being in the moment — talking about the immediate situation (something you see or hear).

2. Showing Interest

This is all about showing genuine interest in people. Ask yourself: what is this person feeling about themselves? Are they feeling understood, happy, proud, insightful?

You show your interest physically by orienting towards them, looking at them, and holding their gaze longer. You show your interest verbally by asking questions, listening actively, and complimenting them.

Aim to get to know people at a deeper level by asking open ended questions, such as “what kind of causes does your firm work with?”, as opposed to yes or no questions.

Do active listening, saying “uh-huh”, nodding, leaning in, smiling, matching their emotion, and making good eye contact. Say the person’s name during the conversation.

3. The Subject Matter of First Conversations

This is your intellectual self presentation. It shows how you process information. In a first conversation, explore topics from the world around you — about life, current events, culture, things you’ve seen on tv, read, or been told about. Make commentary on everyday life.

Two key elements of a successful conversation style are being proactive and being reactive. Being proactive means you think about your goal for the interaction, such as “I wanted to make her comfortable, so I talked about her interests”. Being reactive means being sensitive to the situation and other’s styles and adapting, such as “he seemed shy so I talked about myself for a bit”.

The authors recommend trying to avoid bringing up overly heavy topics, banalities, or focusing too much on a single topic when first meeting someone. It is also key to show curiosity about other’s areas of interests and opinions, even if they are topics you know little about.

4. Self Disclosure

This is your emotional self presentation. How much of yourself do you reveal? Being open and sharing more of yourself makes you more interesting and likable, and makes others more comfortable opening up to you.

When meeting someone for the first time, start with the basics about yourself such as your name, how you feel in the immediate situation, where you live, where you are from, and what your job is.

You can then move on to sharing your background, experiences, feelings, or dreams. What are you passionate about? What excites you? Be open to discussing a weakness or blunder of your own with a sense of humor.

It is important to match your level of disclosure with the other person. Try to avoid complaining or disclosing any heavy personal problems in a first encounter.

5. Conversational Dynamics

This is all about energy and connection. It is something you feel, and is independent of anything you say. For example, if you watch two people speaking a language you don’t know, you can still feel the energy of the interaction, the intensity of the emotion, and how connected the speakers are.

This is made up of two parts. The first part is the energy you put out, which is based on how much you talk, how fast, and how loud. The second part is how you synchronize your energy with others, based on how you take turns talking, yield or hold the floor, and find a mutually satisfying rhythm.

For most people, a satisfying one-on-one interaction is one in which each person is speaking for roughly half the time. However, you’ll usually make the best first impression if you let your partner speak as much or as little as they want and then follow in a harmonizing way.

Intensity is the quality of the energy you project. It’s the difference between your words when spoken compared to written down. This is based on how quickly you speak, how long you pause, and your volume. If you speak too slow you may make the other person impatient or bored, and if you speak too fast you may make them uncomfortable or anxious. If you pause much longer or shorter, or speak much more loudly or quietly than the other person, you may make them uncomfortable.

Synchronizing with others means you listen, respond to their pace and melody, and create a dynamic. You take turns talking, and yield to interruptions.

You will make the best first impression if you take the mindset that you’re more interested in what they have to say than in your own thoughts.

6. Perspective

This is about how you see the world. What kind of perspective on life do you project? Do others see you as relaxed or as an alarmist? Are you seen as taking responsibility for your own life situation or as a victim?

Do you see yourself as better than or lesser than others? Instead of trying to make yourself look better than the other person by bragging or posturing, you should be looking for opportunities to make people feel similar or equal to you. Find something you have in common. Be modest, not embellishing things about yourself, your job, or your life. Elevate the other person by pointing out what you admire about them.

Are you flexible when faced with undesired circumstances? This is based on how you respond to the world in the moment and how you react to unexpected events. For example, if your favorite meal isn’t available at a restaurant, do you get upset or stay calm and look at it as an opportunity to try something new?

Are you an optimist? If you focus on the positive or the funny, especially in a mundane or unpleasant situation, you communicate that you can take things lightly and will be a social asset.

If you want to make a better first impression, you could try stretching your flexibility just a little bit, humble yourself just a little bit, and focus on the positives.

7. Sex Appeal

Your sex appeal is much more than sexuality. It is about more than just physical attributes, and also includes things like personal allure, confidence, and a sense of playfulness. It is a sign of your openness and engagement.

One of the most important ways you express your sex appeal is in your appreciation for others — how you react and respond to others, including with your gaze, with touch, and with expressions of attraction. You can show appreciation by inquiring about the person’s likes and dislikes, asking their opinions, wanting to know everything about them, and staying engaged and energized in the conversation.

Show attraction with your gaze by holding your gaze slightly longer than usual. Be playful and stay in the moment.

How you feel about yourself is another key component, which shows itself in how you hold yourself, your posture, and your gait. If you think people will like you, you’ll act more kindly, and they will in fact like you more.

How To Implement This In Your Life

The authors recommend focusing on just one or two things at a time that are meaningful to you to improve on. Ask yourself “how do I want to come across?”, and then work on improving at the things that are preventing you from coming across that way. Do you want to be the life of the party? Relaxed and low key? Entertaining? Informative? Make others feel that you care about and understand them? When asking yourself this question, it is helpful to think of people who have interpersonal styles you admire.

Tweaking your approach to interactions is easier if you focus less on the mechanics and more on how it’s making others feel.

Set a specific goal to perform a new behaviour to a certain degree or with a certain frequency, or observe certain kinds of feedback. For example, “I will observe the way others respond to me when I speak less” or “I will introduce myself to five new people at the party”.

“Remember, every time you cross paths with someone you affect them. You have the power to make it a positive or negative influence”

Improving On Five Things In The Next Five Weeks

After finishing this book, I decided that to make better first impressions and convey confidence and warmth more effectively I would select one thing to improve on each week for the next five weeks.

I reviewed all the above information and did an assessment of my strengths, weaknesses, and values. This brought me to the conclusion that, of the seven fundamentals outlined above, my highest priorities for improving are the accessibility and showing interest fundamentals. I want to be more approachable, have the courage to start conversations with new people, and show people I genuinely care about them. With this in mind, I selected these five things to work on...

Week One: Eye Contact — Hold eye contact for slightly longer than usual with strangers I walk past at the mall. Observe whether or not they look away before I do and note if more people start talking to me than usual.

Week Two: Introduce myself to at least five strangers and start up brief conversations.

Week Three: Give compliments to at least five new people I meet.

Week Four: In each conversation I have with a new person, make sure I use their name in the conversation at least once.

Week Five: Convey more of an interest in the people I meet by asking each person I meet at least one question about themselves beyond the usual surface level questions such as “how are you?”.

Things I would like to focus on after these five weeks include aiming to learn something about a topic I’m unfamiliar with from each person I meet, showing my passion for a topic in each conversation, and sharing something about myself that makes me feel uncomfortable in each conversation. For an especially big challenge, I want to convince a few new people I meet to let me do a brief video interview with them so I can get video feedback to help in more accurately assessing my strengths and weaknesses.

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I hope you have gotten some useful insights from this article that will help you make the first impressions that you want to make. If you found this article useful, I’d recommend checking out the book because I’ve only scratched the surface in this article.

If you are interested in working together with me on implementing the knowledge from this book into our daily lives I’d love to hear from you!