First Impression Hacks

What kind of first impression do you make? Can you hack it?

What kind of first impression do you make? Can you hack it?

First impressions

They take seconds to make, and are a combination of our nonverbals- everything we communicate about ourselves through what we wear, how we interact with our environment and our body-language.

The feedback I give in coaching is based on research (not just personal opinion). The main theme is: What kind of impression do you give, and do you want to give that impression?

Giving a good first impression

In their book ‘First Impressions; What You Don’t Know About How Other See You‘,  Anne Demaris and Valerie White sum up a good first impression:

‘A good first impression is 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.”

First impression hack

The effects of these hacks are only temporary and only statistically significant (read, ‘not foolproof, or 100% consistent’)

For the brave or foolish, read on:

Hand someone a warm drink

Researchers have found when they handed a person a warm drink, they rated a fictional character as being warmer. You can read more about the study here. This finding is interesting for two reasons:

  1. How we may be influenced by our physical environment
  2. How that is reflected in our language

We talk about a person as being ‘warm’ or ‘cold’. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it indicates how we perceive the world and our emotional response. The second reason this is interesting is because we may be provoking this response in others when we use this language. This is a very new area of study, which already has findings on how the words ‘lick’, ‘kick’ and ‘pick’ light up the movement centre in our brains, not just the language centre. In other words, we have a physical response to hearing these words. (I wrote a post about this research, you can check it out here)

Simple hack #2; make ’em feel good

This one is simple in theory, but might be more of a challenge in practise.

Try directing your conversation partner to a positive emotional state.

Their positive emotional state will then be associated with you…

The reasons this is a challenge is that:

  1. If you’re determined to stay positive when your conversation partner is not, that would indicate that you are emotionally insensitive.
  2. We’re not talking about any creepy NLP/evoke a mildly hypnotic state in someone only so they will walk away feeling the ‘ickyness of manipulation’
  3. It can be a big challenge, and a very rewarding one, to find out what makes someone light up with interest.

For more tips on first impressions, check out this in-depth post on how to assess your own first impressions. The Secrets of First Impressions



Body language’s most reliable indicator?


What is the most reliable indicator of intent in body language?

It’s also the most overlooked; the feet.

They lift up when we’re happy (gravity defying) and point in the direction we want to go.

Do you feel like the person you are talking with might need to leave?

Check their feet. If those toes are pointing towards the door, you can be fairly sure that’s where the rest of the body wants to go too.

The Secrets of First Impressions

Does your first impression leave a lemony taste?

What kind of impression do give others? Does it leave a sweet or sour after-taste?

First Impressions

What do people judge us on in the first three seconds of our first meeting?

Is it:

a) our vast and deep knowledge of our area of work, or

b) the coffee stain on our shirt, accompanied by that blob of Weet-Bix?

If you answered b) give yourself a pat on the back. Unless we are well known for a) it’s probably b)

Most of the information we communicate before we open our mouth is with our non-verbals. That includes our body-language, our posture and how we are dressed, and our grooming.

How do we make a good impression?

This can be summed up in one sentence: Think about the comfort of the other person.

Make eye-contact, listen, check that your listener is engaged. When we get stuck in self-consciousness we forget to be conscious of others.

One of my favourite first impressions goes to Samantha.  She strode across the room with purpose, with direct eye contact and a warm smile, she held out her hand to shake and used my name;

‘Zerafina, I’ve heard so much about you and have been looking forward to meeting you.’ Aww shucks. It’s nice to be noticed.

The Horns or Halo effect

When we meet someone for the first time, that snapshot is 100% of what we know about that person. Our tendency is to perceive that person bathed in the light of that ‘thin-slice’ of information.

If we serve up a bitter-lemon thin slice, others will perceive us to be the whole lemon. All of our subsequent actions will be judged in light of this information. This would be the ‘horns’-effect.

If we are kind to the waiter, polite to others around us, and make others feel comfortable, our subsequent actions are judged in light of this ‘halo.’

How to make a bad impression

  1. Complain
  2. Focus on yourself
  3. Be rude to others
  4. Criticise something
  5. Break promises
  6. Send dismissive or rude emails

There are plenty of other things we could add to this list. Often we do some or all of them assuming that others will know that we are just having an ‘off-day.’ But that’s the sum total of everything a new person knows about us.

How to make a better impression

  1. Look at the list above
  2. Find the opposite of each of the list items
  3. Find ways to demonstrate those things.


Last of all- check your shirt for coffee and Weet-Bix. It’s easier to be forgiven for the coffee stain than making others feel uncomfortable, but it helps to look like we’ve made an effort with our appearance.

What can you do this week to improve the first-impression you give?

How Do You Make Your Audience Feel?

Movement for speakers

How do you move your audience? Move yourself. (photo of Zerafina conducting stretches for best voice usage in Brisbane)

I get a lot of requests to help people feel more confident speaking in front of an audience. We work together on everything from preparation to content and nonverbals (body language).

I was coaching a highly competent leader today, let’s call her Liz, and this was the biggest revelation for her:

It’s not all about you, it’s all about your audience.

Liz, like many others, felt self-conscious about presenting because:

I don’t like everyone looking at me

What are audiences looking for when they are ‘looking at’ you in a presentation?

They are looking for information that supports their understanding of what you’re saying. For example, if you tell them you are happy about something, it helps if you look and sound happy about it.

Ideally, your audience wants you to help them understand what you have to communicate. And they are hoping that you will keep them interested.

Presenting is like singing a song

I explained to Liz that when I first started singing when I was nineteen I was terrified of the audience. I remember my singing teacher, Andi Garing, coming to one of my early performances at a small bar, the Maluca Bar in Gertrude st, Fitzroy.

I have a clear mental image of my shoes; they were black, shiny brogues. I remember following all the swirls and dots in the patterns on the leather as the audience applauded, thinking:

If only they would stop clapping, I can get back to singing.

Wisely, my teacher suggested that I acknowledge the applause (something most people, even professional public speakers forget to do).

At nineteen, before a performance, I was so nervous, I would change my outfit about ten times before the gig. I’d get to the bar and have a drink of wine or vodka to try and settle my nerves. Then I’d be so worried about feeling too sleepy that I’d follow the drink up immediately with an espresso coffee. In retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly productive pre-performance routine, and did nothing to calm my nerves.

Performing was such an emotionally harrowing experience, that I put an enormous amount of research into finding ways to master the mental and physical tools for positive performance.

My brilliant singing teacher, Andi,  helped to put some of it in context:

It’s not about you when you sing a song; it’s about the audience. You are asking them if they have shared the experience you are singing about. ‘Do you know what this feels like? Have you been here too?’

Presenting is all about your audience

How do you want to make them feel?

After hearing the story, as many great marketers are aware, Liz looked relieved and said:

‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s what the audience wants to know.

The reason this was a relief for Liz, and a relief for me when I was nineteen is this:

It takes the pressure off you to present brilliantly, and to think mainly about the needs and interests of your audience instead.

What would be the opposite of self-consciousness? Consciousness of others? Perhaps lacking self-consciousness is all about thinking about others.

What can you do for your next presentation to consider how you want your audience to feel?

Perception Management

What do you communicate to others that you are not aware of?  Photo courtesy of

What do you communicate to others that you are not aware of? Photo courtesy of

What is perception management?

We sum people up in about three seconds when we first meet somebody. It’s tough. We would all like to be understood for our true selves, but that often takes a lot more time than three seconds.

What do your nonverbals communicate about you?

We ‘broadcast’ a lot of information though:

  • how we hold ourselves
  • the language we choose
  • our tone of voice
  • what we wear

We choose to either ‘norm’ to a group, or define ourselves as being on the edge of a group through what we wear. Sit in the foyer of any large corporation to get a sense of the dress-code for that particular business. Even the counter-culture has its own codes (beards, anyone?)

Where do you stand in relation to the ‘norm’ of your group?

Do you need to amplify, or balance something out?

I once worked with a tall, handsome and fit mortgage broker on his nonverbals. He needed to communicate trustworthiness, warmth and credibility straight away to new clients.

With a large build, and over six feet of commanding height we needed to balance these elements out with warmth so that his stature wasn’t intimidating.

How can you find out how others perceive you?

  1. Ask. Often people I coach have been given feedback repeatedly about certain elements of how they are perceived. If you hear something more than once, it might be worth paying attention.

  2. Seeing is believing. Video yourself. In a recent coaching session, a wonderful, vibrant leader saw herself hunching in the video of her presentation, and said ‘I can’t believe I sit like that!’

  3. If you were to be played by an actor, how would they need to dress, talk and hold themselves to accurately portray you? Again, ask someone you trust.

Once you have some information, you can make choices about how you want to be perceived. If someone says that you appear intimidating, and dress like a mafia boss, it might be time to look around your office and take note of what others are wearing- then get a friend to take you shopping.

Unless you are a mafia boss… then you can be secure in the knowledge that nobody has to stretch their imagination to see you how you want to be seen.

What top 3 nonverbals communicate leadership?

What are the elements that will actually help communicate leadership? Image:

What are the elements that will actually help communicate leadership? Image:

This week I’ve been coaching leaders from an international sports brand. They have deep knowledge and experience in their area. One question that has surfaced is ‘How can we make sure that we are communicating with authority?’

Leaders take up more space

From the great ape to the peacock, when we demonstrate leadership (though we call them dominance cues in the nonverbal world), we take up more space.

Watch people in your next meeting:

  • Who spreads out their belongings across the table?
  • Who has a wide stance?
  • Who drapes their arm over the chair next to theirs?

Leaders move slowly

Think of a movie where the king or queen enters the room.

  • What is their pace?
  • Is is faster or slower than those around them?

Leaders take their time.

This may be a reflection of how our body reacts when we get into a power pose. Our sense of competence rises, with an increase in testosterone, but it’s the reduction of cortisol that is most interesting because it reduces our reactivity to stress.

If we are less reactive to stress, we can make better decisions, and this makes us stand out as leaders.


Leaders’ gestures are larger

A funny thing happens when we experience a stress-response. Our instinct is to protect ourselves. It’s a good instinct to have if we are about to fall over…we can protect our vital organs, and do less damage to ourselves as a result.

Unfortunately, this reaction kicks in when we are presenting in front of groups of people, and it means we restrict our gestures. We also restrict our gestures when we are lying, or do not have full confidence in what we are saying. For most presenters, that means that if we are to look more confident, we need to practise larger gestures to support our content.

Try to get some space around your armpits at some point during your presentation. This will help to remind you to open up your gestures.

See the nonverbals (body language) of leadership in action:

This video contrasts Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama speaking, with the nonverbals commentated by Joe Navarro.


What do your surroundings to to your communication?

Business Meeting

We may make harder negotiators when we sit on harder chairs

Have you ever wondered if you hold more of a ‘hard-line’ if you sit on a hard seat?

Probably not.

Neither had I until I read something on a new area of research called embodied cognition.

Dr Thalma Lobel has researched extensively in the area of how what we do with our body impacts on how we think and behave. In her book, ‘Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence‘, Lobel details studies that show that we perceive someone to be a warmer person if we are holding a hot drink in our hands, than if we are holding a chilled drink. Although the entire area is interesting, what is most pertinent for us as communicators, is the impact that language has on our audience.

When we communicate with language around texture, our brains process the information in a similar way to when we experience that sensation. What that means, is that tactile metaphors have a much bigger impact than we could have imagined. We engage the senses of our audience when we use those words. That’s much easier than handing a hot cup of coffee to everyone in our audience.

Are there ways you can add sensation and texture to your language in your next presentation?

For extra information on embodied cognition:

In the first five minutes of this video, Dr Lobel talks about metaphors.

This short article is a great overview (and might explain how magicians can influence us when guessing a number from one to ten); ‘Embodied cognition: thinking with your body’

What are nonverbals? Or; Are your dinosaur scales showing?

There is a fine line between effective, strong leadership and embarrassing displays of dominance.

Our meeting was running on time; the interstate meeting my business associate and I had been asked to attend to discuss working with a high profile client of ours.

Within the first five minutes, there were signs that working with these people would be risking dropping our client into the jaws of an ancient reptile, the business crocodile.

With only cursory eye contact on introductions and shaking hands, small talk was almost non existent. Once in the meeting room our hosts thew their business cards on the table. The leader of the meeting chose a chair at a distance from the rest of the group, and extended himself back in his chair, crossing his outstretched legs at the ankles and broadening through his chest.

These collected elements are what we call the nonverbals of the meeting. Though each element is significant on its own, we look at, and respond to clusters of non-verbal information.

What are nonverbals?

Beyond ‘Body Language’

Nonverbals are everything we communicate that is not verbal. That goes from the building your meeting is in, to how you are greeted by the receptionist. The architecture and how people are dressed. The tone and pace with which people move and talk. This is what Joe Navarro in his book, Louder Than Words’, calls ‘curb-side appeal.’

  1. Tone of voice (paralinguistics) which communicate how we feel about what we are saying. This is exactly why there is so much room for misunderstandings in email and text messages.
  2. What you are wearing? One female manager I know wears a dark, matte shade of lipstick popular in the 1990s. Do you think this communicates an outlook that is up to date?
  3. The use of space and distance, in the nonverbal world, this is called proxemics. In our meeting, the choice our meeting partners made of the seating arrangement communicated their intention to be collaborative (one manager seated next to us) or combative (the other manager, who had also displayed a cluster of dominance displays, left a seat between himself and my partner.)

How do we become fossilised?

Crocodiles have been around for more than 55 million years….Often working within the same company or role for an extended period of time can lead us to being stagnant with our nonverbals. A way of being that seemed appropriate at the beginning of a career can be based on mentors and role models who were already behind the times. Our nonverbals are something people don’t feel comfortable giving us feedback on. It’s too personal. Unless I have been contracted to give someone feedback on their nonverbals, there is no way I would intrude on a person’s personal choices in their communication.

How can we fix it?

Outsource. Find someone who has put in thousands of hours research into what will help you be more up to date. That can be anything from books, magazines and online videos to personal consultations.

I have a one piece jumpsuit from the 1980s that would have looked very chic when it was made. The shoulder pads in themselves would have indicated up-to-date power, and the slashes of hot pink colour would have communicated an edginess, contrasting with the more sombre background beige. In 2014, I wear that jumpsuit to dress-up parties. Every time I wear it I get a laugh. When we stay in a time warp, everything from our wardrobe to our nonverbals can become a joke. We can’t expect our business behaviour to remain the same for twenty or even thirty years without appearing out of date, and out of touch.

Instant Confidence

Want to boost your confidence and reduce stress for free, in two minutes, with no special skills?

Well I do, and that’s how social psychologist, Amy Cuddy presents her research in her Ted talk, ‘Your body language shapes who you are.

The premise is that our physiology affects our psychology. In other words, it’s not ‘fake it till you make it’, but ‘ fake it till you become it.’

And how long does that take? Got a couple of minutes?

After two minutes standing in a power pose (think Wonder Woman), study participants tested higher on testosterone and lower on cortisol. These two hormones are key in facilitating our leadership qualities. The higher the testosterone, the higher our confidence, the lower the cortisol, the lower our reactivity to stress.

This is such an effective and portable tool for changing our relationship to how we think and feel through our bodies. Perfect for a space a small as a bathroom (or even a toilet cubicle) before a high-stakes presentation.

The infographic below, from Brazilian magazine Superinteressante illustrates how we shrink and expand, and what that communicates to others. The study results showed that post power-pose, participants were rated more highly in an interview situation.

Some extra interviews with Amy Cuddy are worth checking out.

The take-away here is to check if you are shrinking or expanding. If we can expand your body-language, we can expand out confidence, and others’ perception of us.