When I was seven years old, meeting a new person was an excruciatingly, painful experience. As an extremely shy kid, the anxiety that haunted me comes back as a clear reminder that I generally just wanted to close my eyes and pretend no one could see me.
As with most parents, mine wanted me to make a good impression on complete strangers all the time. I was to be well-behaved, say hello to adults I had never seen before (sometimes hug them if they were a long lost relative) and answer questions people asked of me but didn’t really care about.
That was nerve wracking but what would truly throw me into a tizzy was when my family would visit someone’s home and they had kids! Every adult around thought it would be more comfortable to throw me into a social circle of peers. Awkward! Adults forget what it’s like to be a kid. I almost always simply wanted to be left alone to hide behind my mother. Was that too much to ask?
As a parent, I made quite the effort to not force my kids to engage until they were comfortable. Instead, I tried to make them comfortable before the situation was in front of them. This… all because I was so impacted by that the overwhelming fear that would cripple me as a youngster.
Now, I’m sure this showed very poorly as I walked into a room with my parents which in turn caused other adults to approach me with a mission to make me comfortable. Essentially, I brought additional undue attention to myself with my body language.
As an adult I’m much better in social scenarios but there is still always a slight pang of anxiety walking into a room of strangers at a networking event, for instance. I have managed to become more comfortable in my skin but I recognize that I have a little preparation that goes into being a person that engages with the world around her. Now I’m not saying that I am necessarily shy or anxiety ridden anymore, but I do notice hesitation.
Why We Are All So Hung Up on First Impressions
At some time, most of us were taught that a first impression was the point in which we first are introduced to a person. This couldn’t be further from the truth 99% of the time.
Humans are innately more observant beings than we want to remember. Thousands of interactions per second happen all around us and we pick up on the most important. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states, we are firstly concerned with our physiological and safety requirements.
How does this impact our first impressions?
When you are anywhere, your senses recognize the little changes in your perimeter; sounds, temperature, moving objects, smells, etc. All these things can impact your impressions without you knowing it.
Say you are in a coffee shop as I am now. In walks a mother with two boys, a three year old and a 10 year old. The mother has a cell phone tucked between her ear and shoulder while holding the squirmy toddler who loudly desires all the sweets in the glass case. The ten year old stands quietly behind mom, patiently waiting until he is needed. In the meantime, he takes in his surroundings, watches the pup whining at the front door who has stepped in a water bowl and seems not to see or hear the chaos with his brother and mom.
As an observer, most likely you have already drawn a first impression as to who this mom is and the natures of her two children by this one moment in time. This is a bit of a more extreme scenario but the meaning of the example is to point out that we all observe and conclude very quickly.
You May Be Killing Your Own Business
This means you are always “on”. This is one of the things I tell my clients every time we are about to step out into public, they are walking into an important meeting or going out onto a large stage to give a talk or lecture. It IS a scary thought but it’s an important factor to success. If you do not recognize that your body language is your most prominent form of communication for first impressions, then you have already lost the potential connection.
The moment you walk into someone’s presence in a space large or small, if they have glanced at you, they have already sized you up. This either leaves them curious about you or unimpressed. In a business scenario, wouldn’t you rather them be curious?
Owning the Room
The blond bombshell, movie star Marilyn Monroe, owned the space when she entered, stepped out or made any appearances. She was very deliberate about her behaviors and the way she was perceived in public.
So how will you own the room first so you aren’t plagued with unintended first impressions? Un-training yourself is not an easy process but plenty of experts will tell you that this is a process of creating a habit to change your outlook and it CAN be done. Your brain can only handle so many anxious instructions just before giving a speech in front of your peers, doing a pitch on Shark Tank or just walking into your first networking event.
Social dynamic expert, Jordan Harbinger, has studied and mastered these observations and how they can cripple a career. He offers some very helpful ways to work on your presence through his site and podcast, Art of Charm, and even has a 30 day challenge to up your perceived value.
A primary purpose of a publicist is to ensure client’s are perceived in a positive light and this if often accomplished through media training. Art of Charm is media training with plenty of science behind it for the curious minds who need validation to improve oneself.
Create the Habit
Jordan has a great suggestion to get you on the way to owning a room. Create the threshold habit. Every time you walk through a threshold, lift your head, stretch your shoulders back with chest upright. He says this posture is a welcoming and confident. I’m sure it will take some time but if this becomes habit, you’ll be owning the room in no time.
Mom always said chin up, shoulders back. Guess she was right.