Why the First 7 Seconds of Your Presentation Are Crucial
First impressions are everything. Whenever we meet someone new, we instantly start sizing them up. We can’t help it – it’s just what our brains do. It’s actually an evolutionary survival mechanism; our brains process qualities in a matter of milliseconds to evaluate our own personal safety or danger.
The same thing happens when we attend a presentation; as soon as we see the presenter, we are forming opinions. Is it fair? No. But we ALL do it.
We end up with an opinion which we often can’t justify on a rational level. The first time we meet a stranger, we rapidly and subconsciously assess how trustworthy and likeable the other person appears to us. Studies have shown that HR professionals make a judgment about the applicant in the first 90 seconds and up to 70% stick with that judgment from then on.
We can’t stop people from forming snap judgements about us. But there are ways in which we can ensure we are making the best first impression possible.
Rapid Processing in the Brain
So what happens in the first few seconds of meeting someone new?
Our brains are always active, even on a subconscious level. They evaluate people in the blink of an eye, and we make judgments of people based on such aspects as body language, facial expressions and clothing.
The power that this fleeting first impression has on our overall judgement is much greater than we might like to think. Even before you’ve moved on from the title slide of your PowerPoint presentation, your audience will already have formed an opinion about you and what you have to say. Our tips at the end of this article can help you to make the right impression from the get-go.
First Impressions Stick
The US author and behavioral scientist Vanessa Van Edwards has published a study on the effect of first impressions on the popularity of TED talks. The 760 volunteer participants rated speakers according to their first impressions. It led to the following conclusion:
“Our study shows that the first 7 seconds decide whether we like the lecture or not – and that has very little if anything to do with words.”
Van Edwards divided the test subjects into two groups in her research. One group only got to see 7-second clips, the other group saw the complete lectures. The groups then evaluated the talks. The results could not have been clearer: the presentations that were perceived most positively overall received top ratings within the first seven seconds, even when the sound was muted.
So, a good presentation actually succeeds within the first 7 seconds! Gifted and self-confident speakers radiate enthusiasm and self-confidence through body language right from the start, and the audience recognizes this.
You Don’t Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression
Always remember that first impressions are the key to success, and you can never repeat them. Those 7 seconds are all you have. With that in mind, you might want to think about introducing your presentation with a particularly powerful image or expressive text.
This allows you to attract your audience’s attention right from the start and paves the way for your presentation being followed with interest until the end.
Gaining Trust is Essential
According to a study conducted by an Italian research team in 2012, the brain focuses strongly on determining a stranger’s trustworthiness. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Being able to quickly distinguish friend from foe can be vital in certain situations.
The brain also evaluates perceived social status. In a split-second, it assesses qualities such as strength, dominance and competence. A combination of these assessments helps us decide how we will approach the new person.
Psychological Phenomena Affecting First Encounters:
Sensory stimuli such as body language and voice determine in milliseconds how we judge strangers. We include aspects such as appearance, smell, facial expressions, gestures and body language in our judgement, even before the face has been consciously viewed.
The Primacy Effect
The primacy effect is one aspect of a phenomenon called the “serial-position effect”, which concerns what happens when people are asked to recall information from memory (another aspect is the recency effect, discussed below). It’s our tendency to remember and give weight to the first piece of information we encounter better than information presented later on.
You tell a friend about a third person, describing them as having various qualities such as intelligence, ambition, thriftiness, inquisitiveness and arrogance. The first word in the list, “intelligence” colors how your friend sees the other attributes in the list; even those that are actually negative are considered in a positive light. If the list starts with the word “arrogance”, however, the opposite effect is seen: your friend would consider the other characteristics as negative. Inquisitiveness would be interpreted as nosiness, and thriftiness as stinginess.
External appearance also influences our perception. An unkempt hairstyle, dirty fingernails or unpolished shoes could be taken as indications that a person is lazy, unreliable and careless.
The Halo Effect
The halo effect is the tendency for the positive impressions that a person makes on us to influence our feelings about them in other areas. It’s a type of cognitive bias
You’re at work and your boss asks your opinion on whether James would be a good team leader for an upcoming project. You don’t know James personally, but you have seen that he’s tall and commanding, so you automatically say yes. This is because your positive thoughts about James’s looks influence how you think of him in other terms, including leadership and intelligence. You subconsciously form these opinions despite the fact you really don’t know if James would actually be a good team leader at all.
The Recency Effect
The recency effect is a memory phenomenon where people tend to recall the most recent information they’re given more accurately. First impressions count, but last impressions are more important.
Driving home after a wonderful vacation, you hit the freeway and immediately get stuck in a huge traffic jam. Because the journey home was a particularly stressful experience, negativity now overshadows the positive emotions you previously felt about your vacation.
A Few Tips for Making a Good Impression
A smile costs nothing and is the primary unifying gesture that we humans have. It counts as a friendly gesture in almost all cultures. People who smile are perceived as more socially competent and are promoted more readily at work. Your smile means those who meet you are more likely to remember you. Smiling people are generally better rated and are more popular. A genuine smile radiates warmth and automatically makes our fellow human beings feel more comfortable around us.
2) Dress appropriately
The saying “Clothes make the man” was recorded as having been said by the ancient Greeks and is still pertinent today. Visual stimuli account for more than 50 percent of our first impression. What you wear makes a difference to your audience. Adapt your clothing to the occasion and make sure it fits well and that your shoes are clean!
3) Use Your Voice to Project Your Personality
Our voice has a decisive influence on our impact. Hesitation, or a frog in the throat, can suggest insecurity. We tend to be more sympathetic to people with a relaxed, calming voice. It pays to try to train your voice in front of the mirror or with people close to you so that you sound as good as possible. If necessary, consult a voice coach. Try to speak as clearly and resonantly as you can, both on the phone and in person.
4) Maintain Eye Contact During Your Presentation
It’s easy to forget about eye contact after the initial greeting, but it’s useful to keep it up during your presentation. If you don’t look at your audience, it can come across as being anxious or unsure of what you’re saying. Try not to go to the opposite extreme, though – people find prolonged staring very threatening!
5) Maintain a Confident Posture
Studies have shown that you can boost your self-confidence automatically by adopting a self-confident posture. Try it out: standing (or sitting) with both feet firmly on the ground, straighten your spine, pull your shoulders back, expand your chest and keep your head upright. Take a deep breath and smile. Doesn’t that feel better? Your posture is very much part of your communication with your audience.
6) Be on Time
There’s very little ruder than being late. Time is a luxury, especially in business, so a lateness is perceived as an unnecessary cost. Arriving too early is also problematic; you risk disturbing others’ work. Aim to arrive with time in hand, then make use of any spare time by walking around the block or making a call.
7) Remember People’s Names
Remembering people’s names shows that you value them and that they are important to you. If you don’t hear a name clearly when someone introduced themselves, it’s always good to ask them to repeat it.
8) Radiate Confidence
Confidence reassures your audience and reinforces your message. If it wavers a little, concentrate on the positive things you have achieved. And if that doesn’t work, revisit tip no. 5 and “fake it till you make it”!
9) Harmonize Your Language and Body Language
As we set out above, our brains scan the entire person in the first seconds of meeting. Use your body language to radiate self-confidence and openness and don’t forget to smile. Before an important presentation or meeting, pause for a moment, gather yourself together and mentally focus on your strengths.
Pay attention to the way you breathe and speak. Umming and ahhing or not speaking loudly enough will leave a negative impression.
Try not to stand stiff and still as a statue; some movement is fine. Don’t overdo it, though – waving your hands around madly is not going to help.
Armed with these tips and a bit of practice, you will be able to take full advantage of the first seven seconds of your presentation. Good luck!