Coronavirus Updates

Alexander Todorov is the Leon Carroll Marshall Professor of Behavioral Science and a Richard Rosett Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth. 

First impressions are based on faces and can be made in a tenth of a second. But they’re malleable. 

Over the course of our lives, we’re exposed to thousands of faces. There’s lots of interesting evidence from studies involving infants that even newborns, who have virtually no visual experience, prefer to look at faces than at equally complex objects. And if you think about faces, they all have the same structure. It’s the same base layout. Yet we’re able to discriminate between thousands and thousands of individual facial features. We are naturally attuned to studying faces. 

My colleagues and I are doing more research on the individual differences in first impressions, but there are some similarities in what people perceive. For most, smiling is a sign of trustworthiness. If you see a smiling person, you’re likely to make the basic judgment that the person will be more likely to help you than someone with an angry or otherwise nonsmiling expression. As a result, in a social situation that involves communicating with strangers, people who happen to be extroverted are probably going to be perceived in a more positive light than those who are introverted or shy.

“If you think about faces, they all have the same structure. It’s the same base layout. Yet we’re able to discriminate between thousands and thousands of individual facial features.”

— Professor Alexander Todorov

There’s no general recipe on how to make a good first impression, as there are contexts where certain cues will be more important than others. It’s one thing when you’re interviewing for a job, and another when you’re going to some kind of a social gathering or party. Each context and situation comes with specific expectations or implicit norms of what behavior is allowed, what attire is appropriate, and so on. If you’re entering an unfamiliar situation and want to make a good first impression, you need to do your research. Learn what the expectations are for behavior and try to meet them.

For people worried about making a bad first impression, know that there are ways to salvage those initial impressions if they don’t go as planned. Changing initial impressions comes down to providing more information about who you are. For example, if your first meeting of new coworkers was negative for some reason, time will help you: as you spend more time together, your colleagues will get enough information by observing you to change their minds. 

First impressions are based on minimal information, and they’re often wrong—almost everyone can think of a case where they have an initial impression of another person and it turns out to be wrong. The good news is that people on either end of a first-time judgment are not stuck with it.

Weekend MBA student Anusha Dwivedula is director of product management at Morningstar and a former co-chair of Booth’s Evening/Weekend public speaking group.

It’s important to be yourself in order to make a good first impression. The more you try to make yourself seem like you’re a different person, the harder it gets for someone to be intrigued by your personality or by what you’re doing.

So if you’re trying to make a good first impression to build a possible lasting connection in a one-on-one situation, start by being genuinely interested in other people. Questions you can ask to open up the conversation are: “What are you working on these days?” or “What interests you apart from work?” It helps you to go beyond asking basic questions about what classes the person is taking, or their titles.

When preparing for a presentation, a lot of successful public speaking starts with creating a framework and coming up with a good story. This framework can be applied to most presentations: start with a problem to address, then you can talk about a solution, explain why the solution matters to the audience, and end with a call to action. 

Illustration of woman adding a smiling to a man's thought bubble

“When preparing for a presentation, a lot of successful public speaking starts with creating a framework and coming up with a good story.”

— Anusha Dwivedula, Current Weekend MBA Student

To calm your nerves when speaking publicly, spend a lot of time preparing. Before, I would write down my entire presentation and then stress too much over its delivery. Now I just tell the story I want to tell. If my presentation is 15 minutes, I will talk for 15 minutes without looking at my computer screen or thinking about my slides. I practice this every day leading up to the presentation. 

Practicing helps me eventually speak in public. Speaking out loud lets you hear what you want to say, and lets your brain register what you want to say. Because I already practiced it, I don’t have to think about what I want to say, so there’s less pressure. 

Practice speaking slowly too. During presentations we tend to speak too fast because we think we have so much to share. Practice pausing, too, so you can pace the speech.

Before a speech, calm your nerves by moving around so you don’t get hunched over or tense. Walk to feel the energy in your body. Look around the room where you’re giving the presentation. It takes time for your mind to register a new place, so looking at what’s around you can help to make the place more familiar.

If you feel you’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, the best thing to do is to pause and take a break—which is why you have to practice pausing when speaking out loud. Pause and look at the screen or the whiteboard so you’re not facing the audience. No one will think it’s strange if you don’t want to look at the audience for a couple of seconds. It will give you time to collect your thoughts, and from there you can continue with the presentation.

Kevin Kan, ’07 (AXP-6), is founder and chief experience officer of Break Out Consulting Asia and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. 

First impressions are really important. The best, most effective way to make a good first impression is to make a genuine connection, whether it’s during an interview, speaking on stage, or making a client presentation. 

Connecting with people is how we build relationships, and ultimately, that’s how business is done. The human connection is about trust. Make sure that it’s a genuine connection so that people will either invite you back for a second-round interview or do business with you, whatever your particular goal may be.

I’m a firm believer in research. It’s important to demonstrate that you took the time to research the company, organization, and/or the person that you’re speaking to, regardless of the setting. People want to feel that you’ve made an effort to focus on them rather than on yourself. Doing research, making your topic relevant to them, these are the things that demonstrate you’ve gone the extra mile and want to connect with them.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time online via video, make sure that you’re being heard well. You may want to buy an external microphone for this purpose, or use headphones. It’s one way to make sure you’re leaving a professional impression.

“Connecting with people is how we build relationships, and ultimately, that’s how business is done.”

— Kevin Kan, ’07 (AXP-6)

Introverts can sometimes have a hard time socializing. They should focus on what value or expertise they bring to the meeting and try to find common ground quickly. That will help them relax and not feel awkward. Extroverts tend to talk too much, so the key for them is to take a break and listen. A human connection is a two-way street, so you have to listen and engage.

If you’re nervous, there are a couple of ways to calm nerves. Some people like to exercise ahead of time because it gets your adrenaline going and endorphins kick in. Some people meditate or listen to slower-tempo instrumental music or the sounds of nature. 

Sometimes you can get off on the wrong foot—a sweaty palm (“wet fish”) handshake, or a stumble. If that happens, try to find common ground as quickly as possible. If it was because you were anxious, acknowledge it. Say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous.’ Then move on. That brings across your authenticity and shows that you’re honest.

If you realize you got off on the wrong foot after a meeting, you can always send a note or flowers. Sometimes these can heal wounds from a bad first impression. Acknowledging that you made a misstep also demonstrates self-awareness and maturity.