The Importance of First Impressions
The importance of first impressions
by Karlin Sloan December 2008
Like it or not, the way you present yourself is almost as important as your words. Do you need an image makeover?
Recently, while working with the sophisticated executive team of a financial services company, I was distracted by the physical presentation of one of the team’s top leaders. In a group of meticulously groomed, Armani-suited sales guys, Robert (not his real name) stood out. He was a rumpled, Dockers-clad mess. The group called him “the absent-minded professor.”
In looking for a resource for Robert, I came across an expert named Cari DeFlorio whose background sounded just right for the job.
DeFlorio started as an HR leader in some very traditional settings, interviewing hundreds of candidates for jobs. She found that many people were unaware of their inappropriate dress or image. In her current business, she counsels clients about that very issue, and I asked her to share some tips.
Q. What are the biggest mistakes people make when working on their professional image?
A. I think that one of the biggest mistakes is to follow trends with no longevity. For example, when a woman thinks that fuchsia will be in forever, it really won’t.
Q. What are your top rules for cultivating a powerful executive image?
A. The first is to know your audience. As much as we want to be individuals, our audiences are much more comfortable when we can dress the part.
Second, when it comes to meeting people for the first time, it’s best to err on the side of conservatism. Navy blue and black are great safeguards. [They’re] a pretty safe bet with any professional crowd.
Third is to be aware of your body language and how people respond to that, and that’s particularly appropriate [for people in] high-profile roles or candidates in an interview. If you are a speaker, you need to project the emotion you want to your audience [to feel]. Listening, making eye contact and participating are all ways to be aware of what you are communicating.
Fourth, be aware that image does convey a first impression. No matter what people try to tell you, I would suggest that within the first five seconds of meeting someone, we do judge [that person].
Q. If you were to work with Robert, what would be the first thing you’d tell him?
A. I would learn about him, and we’d have to determine…if he had nice clothes that weren’t well kept, or [if] he doesn’t have a sense of style. It could be the difference between having his shirts pressed and getting a wardrobe overhaul. Another thing men should be aware of is polishing their shoes—there are simple things we forget.
Don’t put your comb in your back pocket! Put your hair accessories in the glove box. Also [watch out for] smoking and teeth discoloration. This is such a simple thing to fix. I have counseled men who do a lot of speaking—think first and pop an Altoid.
Relative to Robert, is he overly gregarious and needs to calm down? Does he need greater confidence? This could go beyond his clothing and into real image.
Q. Is it different in your experience for women than for men? A. I think that men actually do judge men from a physical perspective. Men can be very judgmental of each other. The other thing I’d suggest is that men with facial hair have to be very careful about their grooming. In a conservative culture, [looking unkempt] is not well received. You want to be perceived well.
Q. Is image really that important, if you’re already getting results?
A.I’m going to suggest [that] image is always important. It has everything to do with the impression you make. At the conclusion of a successful meeting, the unspoken thoughts are often based on image and perception.
KARLIN SLOAN, M.A., is founder and president of Karlin Sloan & Co. (karlinsloan.com), based in New York City and Chicago, which provides executive coaching, team-building and leadership development services. Email Karlin at email@example.com.