How much do first impressions matter? A great deal, as it turns out. When we say first impressions matter, we don't know the half of it. We’re hard-wired to want the answers to a few vital questions based on those first impressions – such as, is this person that has just come into my field of view a friend or a foe? Is he or she part of my tribe or not? A potential mate or not?
In one study, participants picked the future winner of a political race based on a quick look at the candidates’ photos. In a variety of others, people have assessed the honesty, suitability for partnership and parenthood, and so on, based on the now-infamous thin-slicing of Blink fame.
What’s going on, and what’s in it for speakers? Are audiences going on instantly-formed first impressions of how interesting a speaker is likely to be and if so, what can we do about that?
Our conscious minds can handle roughly 40 bits of information a second. That sounds like a lot until you know that our unconscious minds can handle 11 millions bps. And so we've evolved to let our unconscious minds handle first impressions, along with a lot of other things, because our conscious minds are easily overwhelmed with just talking and trying not to spill coffee on ourselves.
How does the unconscious mind handle those first impressions? We have mirror neurons that fire when we see (unconsciously) someone else come into view. Our mirror neurons match their emotions precisely. So if that person is nervous, they make us nervous. We literally leak our emotions to each other.
Think of this in the context of a job interview. If you walk into the interview room agitated, you’ll agitate the interviewer. Then he/she will probably want to terminate the interview faster than is good for your job prospects because being agitated is uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, you sail into the room oozing confidence and joi de vivre, you’ll make the interviewer happy and comfortable, and raise the odds hugely that you’ll get the job.
The same goes for speakers and audiences. If all you have to offer to an audience, one that is ready and waiting to assess you with its unconscious minds, instantly, is that you are nervous as a cat facing a posse of Great Danes, then you’re doomed before you even open your mouth.
New research from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, published recently in Current Biology, further refines our view of what happens in those first impressions.
We used to identify six possible emotions for people to spot in (and leak to) one another: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But the Glasgow scientists found that our actual unconscious retinue of emotions may be simpler even than that. In fact, we may have four basic emotions, according to the study: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Since both anger and disgust share a wrinkled nose, and both surprise and fear share raised eyebrows, the study finds that they are actually the same deep down in our unconscious minds. We develop the differences between surprise and fear and between anger and disgust, more for social reasons than survival ones.
That means at a deep level, you’ve got basically four ways to show up in front of an audience in making your first impression, and your facial expressions will signal one of those four to the waiting unconscious minds of the audience before you. Three of the four are negative. And given the tendency of all of us to be afraid before we start to speak, the odds are good that we’ll signal and transmit that emotion – unless we work specifically on showing up with one of the others.
How about showing up happy, rather than sad, afraid, or angry? How do you control your emotions? By focusing on that emotion the way an actor does preparing for a scene. Recall a time when you felt that emotion strongly and naturally. Use all your senses to bring that memory and emotion back. How did it smell, taste, feel, sound, and look? If you do that work thoroughly and well, you’ll crowd out the fear with that other one you’ve picked and you’ll transmit that emotion powerfully to the audience.
Your first impression will kill, as the comics say, and they mean that in a good way.