Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 34 – First impressions do count

Do first impressions really count?
We’ve all heard the premise that first impressions count, and that people really do make up their minds within the first few seconds (let alone minutes) of meeting you.  But how true is it? Well, unfortunately, people do make assumptions about others based on what they see and observe.

Be honest, we’ve all done it, haven’t we? The question is – How accurate were your observations?

If I were honest I would have to say that sometimes I was spot on, and other times I was completely and hopelessly off the mark, but the fact that we can and do, make assumptions based on nothing more than a few spoken words, gestures and the physical appearance of another person is part and parcel of what makes us human. It may not be logical, but we can and do make assumptions on little more than how you carry yourself, your mannerisms, what you wear, and your attention to detail.

The point is, when we are going for an important interview or meeting we can make this fact work in our favour.

1. Dress appropriately for the organisation that you are visiting. Even if you are only planning on dropping off your CV, make sure you dress the part. It may not be necessary to wear a business suit, but smart is essential. Jeans and t-shirts should be avoided at all costs. After all you never know who you are going to meet. It might be the receptionist’s day off and your future boss may be filling in.
2. Avoid “loud” ties and hip and trendy fashions, if in doubt, err on the side of conservative, at least until you know the culture of the organisation. If you base your business wardrobe on what you have seen on the day of the interview, remember that in some organisations (especially in Australia) Friday is “casual” day. 
3. Make sure your shoes are shined and polished. It is true that your shoes say a lot about you. So don’t neglect this part of your professional image.
4. Always have clean hands, if you are prone to damp, sweaty palms, make a point of arriving at the interview a few minutes before hand and ask where the bathroom is. That way you can wash your hands before you go in.
5. Don’t forget to brush your teeth before you leave home. If you chew gum (to disguise the onion you ate for lunch), make sure you dispose of it before going into the building. Similarly, try not to smoke before going for an interview as smoke clings to hair and clothing fibres.
6. If you wear makeup, please make sure your mascara hasn’t run, you don’t have lipstick on your teeth, and your nail polish isn’t chipped.
7. One for the men – do not wear white sports socks. Match the colour of your socks to the colour of your shoes and/or business suit.
8. Always shower before dressing – body odour is a definite no-no. Do not assume that your perfume or aftershave will mask the fact that you didn’t give yourself enough time to get ready, or that you had been to the gym before going to the interview.
9. Always be polite, you never know who you are going to meet, and finally
10. Smile. You may be feeling a little nervous, but a smile and a firm handshake can really make the difference.

Whilst we are on the subject of dressing to impress, remember that it can be insulting to a new organisation, or an existing organisation for that matter, the person you are meeting and your co-workers to show a lack of concern for your appearance. Being wrinkled, unshaven, smelly or unkempt communicates (intentionally or not) that you don’t care enough about the situation, the people or the company to present yourself respectably. If you are in any doubt about yourself and your appearance, go into the bathroom, or anywhere where you have a good sized mirror and ask yourself – would you employ this person?

First impressions – and written communication
What is the first thing a potential employer sees when you apply for a position with their organisation? They see “you” – so what is your application saying about you?
Is it saying, I am a professional, I understand your needs and I have demonstrated that I am the best person for the job? I have proven that I do have good written communication skills, because I have been able to persuade you by my written words that I am a suitable candidate to ask to come in for an interview, where I can then demonstrate that I also have excellent verbal communication skills.

Or does it say, well I am applying for this job because I think I can do it. My experience is a bit vague, just like the words I have used in my application. I’m not really sure what you are looking for in a person, and I’m really not sure if my skills are as up to date as I would like them to be.

Does your application scream “Pick me, pick me”. Do you hope that the coloured paper and the fancy font, and the many clichés you have dripped through your application, will help the prospective employer to overlook the fact that you are a little short on relevant experience?

Or is your CV out of date, is your application crumpled and dirty, with coffee stains on the back? Do you expect the prospective employer to read between the lines, and to work out for themselves that you really could do the job – if you could be bothered?

Of course, application forms, covering letters and CV’s are not the only thing to consider when you are communicating to your “audience”. Every email that you send out, every letter, every newsletter or article that you write, every assignment, every departmental memo, everything that has your name on it “speaks volumes” about you and the kind of person that you are. What is your writing style saying about you?

Is your message short and to the point? – if it is you could be seen to be blunt and have little time for anyone or anything. Of course it could also mean that you don’t have a great deal of time, or the subject matter does not need a long, flowery description.

Do you write long, descriptive prose that meanders and fails to get the point? 

Or do you write with the reader in mind? I can see the frowns from here? What do you mean, the reader in mind – it’s an email, not a book !!

Emails like all professional written communication, should be carefully composed with spelling, grammar and facts checked before being sent. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, a case of familiarity breeding contempt. It seems to me that emails have replaced telephone conversations, face-to-face meetings and traditional letter writing, and with it many of the thought processes that used to go with these alternative forms of communication. What amuses me (and yes I have been caught once or twice with this) is how many times we haven’t verified the name of the recipient before pressing the send button. I know I would think twice before picking up a telephone and randomly pressing numbers, hoping to reach the person that I wanted, but we do not seem to worry too much with electronic messaging if it reaches the right person or not. So next time you write an email, consider your audience, who is going to be reading this “letter”, and is the content and writing style appropriate, or do you need to tailor your message a little more?

If we take the example of a job application, if you write with the reader in mind, you will ensure that you know who you are talking to – instead of Dear Sir/Madam, you will use the name of the person you are sending the application to. You will also ensure that you have tailored your application to the organisation, which means giving specific, relevant examples of your skills and experience. This also means that you won’t use the same letter/application that you have sent off for those other jobs you’ve applied for recently. If you are still in the habit of doing this – one question – if you didn’t reach the interview stage using that letter/application/version last time, why would you expect it to get you to the interview stage this time? 

First impressions – and verbal communication
Depending on your mood, your posture and the confidence you have in yourself and your abilities, your voice and your speech patterns will change. Not convinced? Try slouching when you are speaking to someone on the telephone. The physical act of compressing your lung capacity will have a dramatic effect on the quality and tone of your voice. Slouching also seems to give your mind and body “permission” to lower the quality of the words coming out of your mouth. How do you sit when you are making an important phone call? Most people sit tall, shoulders back with feet flat on the floor. Next time you receive a phone call from a prospective employer telling you that you have been successful, try if you can to observe the way that you and your body responds to the external stimulus. Similarly, next time you speak to a friend, or someone you know extremely well, watch how your body reacts, and the choice of words that you use.

I am sure there will be people out there who are thinking, what complete and utter garbage. Of course I am going to sit differently when I am talking to family and friends, as opposed to when I am talking to the bank manager – who wouldn’t? Well, that is all well and good, but most of us do it subconsciously, and we can allow periods of illness, depression (feeling down), when you are hurt and angry, to affect the quality of our voices. Whilst most of us will be able to pick up the phone and manage to hold a conversation no matter what our mood is, it is very obvious to the person on the other end of the telephone, what mood you are in. If you are in a sales or customer service role, this can have a huge impact on the money that you make and the hard work that you have put into cultivating the relationship will have gone.

But, verbal communication isn’t just about telephone manners, I’m sure we’ve all been to events where someone has dominated the conversation and we have felt a little put out by their attitude and sometimes arrogance to the people around them. We have all seen the bluff and bluster of a sales person who thinks very highly of him/herself, the people who are out to get the sale no matter what, and no matter whether you want the product or not. Or what about the shy, timid person who has trouble raising a smile, let alone have a conversation with you, would you want to do business with any of them?

First impressions do count. Remember that a first impression may only take a few seconds to cultivate, but can take years to erase, It is important to remember that everything you say, and everything you do is speaking volumes about you. The question is what!

A Thought to Ponder
“I’m all in favour of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters.”
Frank Lloyd Wright (1868 – 9159)