Professionelle resources

On first impressions

By Penny Harrison

Making the Most of First Impressions

Like it or not, the first things people notice are outside our control. They are ethnicity, gender and age!

Where we can make a difference is by ensuring we have the appropriate appearance for our role/status and for what we are trying to achieve. Yes, people do judge a book by its cover, especially at the first meeting. Appearance is partly to do with clothes and grooming and partly to do with how you conduct yourself.


Do you give an appearance of fitting in your role? If you are under-dressed others may feel that you don’t respect them or the situation. If you are over-dressed, they may think you are too formal and distant. Be appropriate to the situation but when in doubt, in formal professional environments, always dress a little more formally than the group you are dealing with – you can always remove that jacket to reduce the formality if necessary.


We also notice grooming in that first impression. Regardless of the level of formality, sloppy grooming generally creates a poor impression. Sloppy grooming includes dirty shoes, unkempt, greasy hair and dirty, smelly clothes!

Facial expression

People notice whether you have a friendly face and look relaxed and open. Try to avoid letting nervousness and tension show in that first impression. As a professional, you need to look confident and relaxed.

Eye contact

People notice the appropriateness of your eye contact especially in formal occasions. In most European environments, eye contact needs to be direct but not invasive. In many Maori environments, however, you may need to use more indirect eye contact.


People notice whether you wave your arms around a lot, or whether you are very tight and still. Lots of arm waving can appear nervous, ‘over the top’, or disorganised. Tightness can appear uptight. To get effective impact you need to sit and stand firmly and use gestures in an open and appropriate way.

Amount of room you occupy

This is closely tied up with movement. Use your space confidently but non-aggressively and you will help communication. If you shrink a bit or appear aggressive, people will react to that rather than to what you are saying.


If you match the touch you use to the environment you will help long and short term communication. A firm handshake is important. One woman told me that as a new arrival in New Zealand she had won a job against stiff competition and comments by her new boss suggested the firm European style of her handshake had a lot to do with her success!

Using Your Voice to Generate a Great First Impression

Being aware of what you sound like as well as what you look like, is extremely important in generating a positive first impression, especially in a business or professional context.


Are you talking too slowly? You need speed variation. People think that slow speakers are of low status. Fluent speakers get listened to.


Is your voice too soft or too loud? If it is very soft, people will think you lack confidence. If it is very loud, they will assume aggression. Make sure the volume is confidently audible.


Is your voice singsong or monotonous? Both of these will cause people to think you are boring! A deeper pitch is easier to hear and thus has more impact. Overall, think of varying the pitch a little as you speak, to provide colour and interest for the listener.


The timbre of your voice: is it too nasal, breathy, thin, strident, harsh or hoarse? People are more prepared to listen to a pleasant sounding voice. But what can you do about it? If the stakes are high or you are cursed with a particularly grating timbre, you can take action. Maggie Thatcher had voice training. Before the training she sounded shrill, after it, she spoke low, mellifluously in a way that said “authority and gravitas”.


How distinct are the sounds of your words? The more clearly you speak the more you will be listened to.

Unfortunately, the content of what you say forms only 7% of the impression you create. This may come as a great disappointment and even shock to those of us who are professional services providers!

If you use a lot of fillers such as ‘um’ and ‘ah’ or qualifiers like ‘perhaps’ and ‘sort of’ you will give an impression of lack of confidence even if you are an expert in the field. Watch out for exclusive languages, e.g. jargon, as those who don’t know the jargon will turn off. Women often qualify what they have to say with phrases like “I think”, or “I could be wrong, but…”. Men, by contrast, say “it is this way”. These qualifiers take away from the persuasiveness of women’s arguments and make them appear less decisive. It is also important to take our turn in conversations, rather than wait for it. By doing so, especially when surrounded by men, we are less likely to be interrupted.

Leaving Thought

Research shows that the person who influences the meeting the most speaks the earliest, the most often, the most fluently and the most forcefully!

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