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.

A part of this post is adapted from my new book, Power Cues:  The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, published May 13, 2014 by Harvard. You can order it here.  



  1. Another great post. Completely agree. Another tip… I always give a firm, slightly long handshake and big smile / eye contact to the person who introduces me. Make THEM feel important. That small pause for a personal connection I believe sets the tone for the audience, who is watching every cue. Hopefully, this warm, appreciative, fully-engaged stance transfers to the audience such that they are already feeling the love before my first word. I’ve seen speakers behave rather dismissively to the person who just delivered a glowing intro. As if that person is an obstacle or doesnt even exist. I find this off-putting, and I already think the speaker is arrogant before they even start. I think there’s a real opportunity in the hand-off from introducer to speaker if handled with care.

  2. Thanks, Josh, for the comment and the great tip — little moments like that matter hugely, as you say. It’s all about setting the right tone and expectations for the audience. Even if they don’t notice it consciously, they will pick up on things like that small arrogant dismissal of the introducer — or the generous acknowledgement that you give — unconsciously.

  3. First impressions? They matter more than we can imagine, or even comprehend.

    Research has shown 93% of what someone thinks of us, our ideas, products, services, or even speeches, is determined in as little as three seconds.

    Sometimes we can articulate why we like someone or something, and other times we can’t. We shrug our shoulders, say “it’s just my gut,” or “I can’t put my finger on it…but” and sometimes are dismissive of it because this process happens so quickly, and often unconsciously.

    Malcolm Gladwell does go over this in Blink in his writing about the adaptive subconscious, a highly evolved part of our brain that is making these seemingly “snap” judgements and decisions, but often with a high degree of accuracy and sophistication.

    As if this is not daunting enough, let me share some more research.

    The BBC reported that researchers found the human brain can make decisions in just 1/20th of a second when viewing a webpage.

    This surprised the researchers who believed it would take at least 10 times longer to form an opinion.

    The study, published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, also suggests that first impressions have a lasting impact.

    You can read the study for yourself at

    Researchers at Princeton found when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within 1/10 of a single second!

    “We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them,” said Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov in the report. “It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.”


    So we must work creatively – and quickly – to pique someone’s curiosity, arouse their brain, and get them to pay attention on our journey to becoming someone they know, like and trust.

    Thanks for the post. It’s a terrific topic, and one I have devoted most of my professional life to!

  4. Great post and advice. First impressions can be great when you’ve mastered the art of exuding happiness and competence, which I’ve worked hard at. The thing that I’ve personally realized that sets me back in terms of first impressions / judgements by others is how youthful I look. Don’t get me wrong, I’m young (though not as young as I apparently look) and I’m smart and know my subject matter extremely well. My strengths are in teaching and speaking. However, I often wonder how many close their minds to me before I get a chance to open my mouth and inspire them – or worse, how many choose not to attend my session upon looking in and seeing me at the head of the room, getting prepared to present. There are things that I do to hopefully overcome this, such as dress well, I’ve developed a reputable name for myself, etc. But it’s still a constant thought behind my mind. One that is brought to the forefront after a great and successful presentation when an attendee walks up to me to thank me and adds in “so you’re not 22 then!”… Nope, I’m not!

    1. Thanks, Melissa — great story. I should do a blog post on looking 22 and needing to convince older people of your gravitas. It’s a fascinating topic. There is a lot you can do with body language and voice to help people get past the age thing…..

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