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First impressions matter. A lot. This is particularly true for public speakers, who stand before crowds, sharing their passion and expertise for a living. The audience immediately sizes up a speaker and makes an initial judgement, even before that speaker UTTERS A SINGLE WORD.
Don’t believe a first impression can happen that quickly?
In her book, 5 Ways To Make A Killer First Impression, Vanessa Van Patten, author of Human Lie Detection And Body Language 101, referenced a Princeton research project in which people watched a video of political candidates for a microsecond (that’s really fast). They were then asked to predict who would win the election.
The subjects had a 70% accuracy rate. “People can make incredibly accurate snap judgments in a tenth of a second,” Van Patten said, unsurprised.
How the audience perceives you, in a mere second, will have lasting effects. Make a bad first impression, they may tune you out or even get up and walk out. Make a great first impression and they will hang on to your every word.
The old adage, “You won’t get a second chance to make a first impression” is spot on.
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Our brains are like little computers. We have the equivalent of hardware (our unconscious mind) and software (our conscious mind) working on our behalf to help us learn, move through space, and stay alive.
Our conscious mind can handle roughly 40 bits of information a second. That may sound like a lot to you, until you realize that our unconscious mind can handle a whopping 11 million bps.
Long story short, since our unconscious minds can handle more data processing, we evolved to allow it to handle many mundane tasks for us, including developing first impressions.
These first impressions helped keep our ancestors alive. Was that noise made from something benign or dangerous? Is that animal going to walk past me or kill me for food? As you can see, first impressions have always been important.
So here we are with our unconscious minds handling first impressions because our conscious minds become overwhelmed easily. How does our unconscious mind handle those first impressions?
Through what are called "mirror neurons." When another person comes into our view, these neurons fire and match the emotions of the other person. So if that person is nervous, we instantly feel nervous. If they are angry, we become angry. If they are calm and happy, we are calm and happy in their presence.
In this way you could say that emotions are more like viruses than feelings. We pass our emotions back and forth to each other every day all day long.
In this way we really still are like animals. Dogs instantly sense when another dog or person is nervous or ready to fight. We do the same.
Think of the implications here when standing in front of an audience. If you walk on stage carrying fear with you, your audience will pick up on it and will get an instant “bad” feeling about you. “I get a bad feeling about that guy.” This is why we get instant feelings about one another.
Besides getting an animalistic feel for you, an audience will also quickly take the following into consideration to make a snap judgement about you:
In a Wall Street Journal article, Ben Decker, Chief Executive Officer of Decker Communications, is quoted as saying, "Likability isn't something you are born with, like charisma. It's something you can learn."
Any audience wants to instantly like a presenter. They want to feel that presenter is warm, kind, intelligent and human. Do you feel you put these characteristics on display?
When you take the stage, does the audience automatically fall asleep, or does your passion cause them to sit up in their seats and pay full attention? Only develop topics you are knowledgeable and passionate about.
You probably remember those first days back in school when you and your friends would instantly size up the new teacher. The first thing you would try to determine was would you be able to get away with anything? If the teacher was very confident, chances are you wouldn’t be able to get away with much of anything.
When you take the stage, do you exude confidence or are you a walking bundle of nerves?
How can people get a first impression from you before you even speak one word? There is other language besides spoken language, and that is body language. Are your gestures and body language saying the right things?
Do you smile when you take the stage? Do you make eye contact with the audience, or stare at your slides?
Now that you are fully aware that you are being judged, let’s look at some simple but effective ways you can ensure you will give a fantastic first impression.
If you want to present yourself as confident, it’s important that you are utterly prepared. Preparing for your presentation ahead of time is key. Not only should you spend time outlining and developing your presentation, but also saying it out loud a few times.
Also, if possible, spend some time in the venue beforehand. This will allow you to get a feel for the space and ensure everything is set up the way you need.
What would happen if someone showed up to a black-tie affair in khakis and a ripped T-shirt? They would be asked to leave. Conversely, what would happen if someone showed up to a surfing lesson in a tuxedo? They would most likely be asked to change.
It’s important to dress the part when giving a presentation, but how do you know exactly HOW to dress? You must know your audience and your topic. Are your topic and audience more formal or casual? Are you are talking to millennials about investing in Bitcoin? If so, causal will work best. Are you talking to a group of baby boomer CEOs about IRA planning? Better put on a suit.
The more you know about your topic and audience, the better able you’ll be to dress the part.
Why not make a great first impression before you even take the stage? You never know who will be introducing you. They may or may not have a lot of energy or excitement in their voice or attitude. Don’t leave your introduction to chance.
Create one yourself by writing a paragraph about yourself that gets the audience excited. Can you add a VP, CEO, CFO or any other valued letters to your name? Have you written any books or won any awards? Try to sell yourself in the intro. It will go a long way in making a great first impression.
Some people will make up their minds about you as soon as you step foot on the stage, while others will still be on the fence until you begin speaking. This is your chance to win them over so don’t blow it!
Use an attention grabber such as a joke, a startling statistic, or a personal story. This trick wins over most crowds and gets them on your side immediately.
This is akin to the introduction tactic. The idea is to make people fans of yours before they even see you in person.
You’ll want to speak with event organizers and ask how it would be possible for you to provide the audience value ahead of time. Once you have this information, be sure to use the magic number 7 – it generally takes 7 times before someone says yes to an offer.
Provide 7 touchpoints before the event to market yourself as an authority in your industry. As for channels, think about using online and social media channels, Facebook Live presentations, direct mail campaigns and using specific hashtags.
Yes, this will take some effort but you will be shocked at how powerful this strategy is. And once you see how well it worked the first time, you will be motivated to put in the effort every time.
The next speaking engagement you have, don’t leave anything to chance. If you follow these tips and strategies, you are sure to make an excellent first impression every time you take that stage.