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Presentations: Understanding the first impressions principle


HANDSHAKEIt is human nature to form opinions about people the first time we see or hear them. As such, Bob Selden explains why understanding the 'first impressions' principle is critical to trainer's presentations.

What's your instinctive 'gut' reaction to a presenter?

You cannot not make a first impression. They say you can't judge a book by its cover but how many of us judge people by the way they walk, talk, or even by the way they dress?
Do you really know the first impression you create in your presentations? Have you asked anyone lately?

We form opinions about people the first time we see or hear them. We even form opinions about people we have never met! Take the following case for instance...

Stung by the response to the story of their flying in and out of Washington in private jets to address a Senate Committee enquiry in the US recently, three auto maker CEOs made rather different plans for their return visit to Washington the following week.

Second time around, all three CEOs drove to Washington in fuel-efficient hybrid cars. All announced plans to sell their corporate aircraft. And Ford and GM plan to pay their CEO $1 per year if their companies take any government money.

What did you make of this? What was your gut reaction?
Is your reaction different to what it may have been if these cost-saving decisions were made before the first visit by private jet?

Photo of BOB SELDEN"They say you can't judge a book by its cover but how many of us judge people by the way they walk, talk, or even by the way they dress?"

According to Andrew O'Keeffe, an expert in human instincts and author of The Boss, a bestselling novel about the impact of work on the human spirit, the answer to the last question will almost universally be 'yes'.

"One of our instincts called 'first impressions to classify' is at work here," O'Keeffe explains. "Humans make quick judgments from first impressions and use these quick judgments to classify experiences. Once people have classified their opinion, it's hard to shift that opinion. We judge subsequent events by how we have already classified the information."

Given that people have already judged the CEOs as 'wasteful' or 'greedy', it is almost inevitable that their interpretation of this latest visit will be negative or cynical – 'I'll bet they still get their bonuses', 'poor things will be down to their last billion', or at best neutral – 'it's the least they could do' are probably some of the responses people had.

If the CEOs had driven to Washington in the first place (or flown by commercial flight) and taken a serious pay cut, people would be more likely to have judged them positively as that would have been the first impression.

Further, because they need to overcome the negative first impression, the automotive companies need to do more now compared to what they would have needed to have done at the start.
O'Keeffe's take on this is that the CEOs were left in a no-win situation. They had to reduce their largesse, but will never get the traction they want from doing so. But it's hard to recover once people hear and 'classify' what Ford's CEO said at the recent Congress Committee hearing. Asked whether he would consider cutting his current compensation package of around $22m, he answered, "I think I'm okay where I am."

As O'Keeffe suggests, "The benefit of understanding instincts is that we know what will work and what won't, and we can then make intelligent choices."

Unfortunately, it seems as if these CEOs are simply not aware of the human phenomena of 'first impressions to classify'.

Compare these actions with those of the CEO of Japan Air Lines, Haruka Nishimatsu, who receives an annual salary of $90,000.

Yes, that's right, not $9m, not even $900,000, but $90,000. And there are no bonuses or share options attached. In fact Nishimatsu gets paid less than his pilots.

Nishimatsu clearly understands the 'first impressions to classify' principle. JAL was going through some very tough times in 2007 when Nishimatsu was appointed CEO. Jobs were cut. People were asked to take early retirement. As he commented "The employees who took early retirement are the same age as me. I thought I should share the pain with them. So I changed my salary."

Now that's really 'walking the talk'.

What's the message here for trainers, facilitators, in fact anyone who has to make a good first impression in their presentations?

People do base judgements on their instincts. These instincts can be understood. The key for trainers, particularly in stressful times such as these, is to ask oneself "What's causing people the most pain at the moment?" Or, "What are people most worried about?" Or, "What would people want to really walk away with from this presentation?"

"It's very hard to recover once people have formed a negative first impression"

Being clear on these interests or concerns, one can then pre-judge how presentations might be received by asking "What will be the likely response? How will others see this?" But most importantly, "If someone else did this, what would my own gut reaction be?"

Understanding the 'first impressions to classify' principle is critical in your presentations (remember, it's very hard to recover once people have formed a negative first impression). How to do this?

  • Start your presentations with a story that people can relate to. Ensure it addresses their likely concerns, issues and interests (not yours).

  • Use rhetorical questions to address these concerns, issues and interests. Get people thinking about "What's important to me in this topic?"

  • Use rhetoric, imagery and metaphors to involve your audience in the topic. Recent research by James J Naidoo and Robert G. Lord (June 2008 edition, Leadership Quarterly), suggests that not only does the use of such tactics impact audience behaviour, but used well they also have a positive affect on how we perceive the charisma of the speaker.

In reading this article, whether you wanted to or not, you've just felt a gut reaction. How did you classify this first impression?

Now, what's the message for your next presentation?

Bob Selden is author of the newly published 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' – a self help book for new managers, where readers work through the book depending on their own learning style. For details, go to and parent group Sift Media are not responsible for the content of external internet sites


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