Why it’s important to put your best foot forward

We all know that beauty is more than skin deep and that a person’s clothing doesn’t necessarily reveal their true character. Nevertheless, people form strong impressions about us based on how we look. Maybe that’s not fair or accurate, but that’s the way it is. And there’s a good reason that first impressions are so important: once upon a time, quickly being able to judge characteristics like aggressiveness and trustworthiness, whether someone is a friend or a foe, kept us alive longer; it was an important survival mechanism.

A couple of million years later, give or take, we still make instant assessments. In the blink of an eye, people can, or think they can, sense whether we’re friendly or forbidding, uneasy of confident, an ethical, truthful person or a deceitful, lying snake-in-the-grass.

And we never get a second chance to make a great first impression. Whether they’re right or wrong, first impressions stick. They play a powerful role in how we treat other people and in how they treat us. They strongly influence our friendships, promotions, pay raises, responsibilities and career paths. They affect how much support and help we receive from others and whether others accept our ideas. So it behoves everyone to learn how to make a great first impression.

Two types of first impression
There are actually two types of first impression. The first is formed in a tenth of a second (that’s twice as fast as the blink of an eye) and it’s based on looking at someone’s face. Looking at a person longer than that doesn’t significantly alter your first impression, (although looking for a full second probably gives you more confidence in your assessment).

It takes about seven seconds to form the second type of first impression and this one is based on the rest of the ‘package’ you present, particularly your body language and what used to be called ‘deportment’, or carriage, and the way you’re dressed, including the accessories you’re carrying and wearing. This package is four times more important in forming the first impression than anything you say.

Not convinced? How you look reflects your innermost self, your skills and your confidence and indicates how much appreciation and respect you give yourself and expect others to give you.

How to put your best foot forward
You want to look cool, calm and collected, so watch your posture and don’t fiddle with your hair, your tie, your pen or anything else. Don’t twist and turn, shuffle, shift or sprawl and don’t tap your foot or jiggle your leg.

Height and space–standing tall, shoulders back, head straight–signal confidence and competence, so adopt an upright posture. (Good posture doesn’t just look good–it helps you breathe and think better, too.) Empty your mouth and hands to look composed and take your hands away from your hips so you don’t look aggressive, hostile or defiant.

Smile to signal friendliness and approachability–not a fake smile that shows nervousness, arrogance or couldn’t-care-less, but a genuine smile that shows ‘I’m a really nice person you’d love to get to know‘. Make eye contact to transmit your positive energy and indicate interest and openness. Shake hands to establish rapport and show you’re professional, polite and confident. Lean in a bit to show you’re engaged and interested–but respect the other person’s space.

Lower your voice to be taken more seriously. Take a deep breath and keep breathing to produce a clear, steady voice and relax you enough to speak at the right volume. Breathing also delivers oxygen to your brain so that you can think clearly about what you want to say and say it clearly and confidently.

Believe it or not, people can pick another person’s attitude instantly and you make a better first impression when your attitude is positive; for more about the importance of a positive attitude, see my earlier blog called Is your glass half empty or half full?

Discussion questions

Are the messages you’re sending about yourself the ones you really want to send? How can you use this information to present yourself in a stronger, more competent light?