Hand reaching out to shake for a positive first impression
Unsplash/Cytonn Photography

Hi, I am about to give you a critical presentation which I have spent dozens of hours preparing. I’ve got such a great message that you need to hear, it will change your life, it will help you and help me.

So I’m going to kick it off by shuffling to the front of the room with bad posture, wrinkled clothes, hands in my pockets, shifty eyes, and a smirk that reveals some spinach from lunch stuck in my teeth.

Let’s begin!

How long do you have to make a good impression on your audience? It can be as long as fifteen seconds, and that’s not a a long time. In job interviews, many interviewers have already subconsciously made up their mind about the candidate within the first seven seconds of meeting them. The situation in a presentation is, in many ways, similar to a job interview. You have to persuade others, you have to sell you or your ideas. So in a business presentation, those first few seconds count for a lot. They set the stage for what comes next. That means you need to do everything you can to ensure success.

How to Make a Positive Impact in Seconds

That fifteen-second clock to make a good impression? It’s ticking even before you open your mouth or launch your slide deck. We, the audience, are sizing you up from the moment you walk up to begin your presentation, or even earlier. Three things are vital in making that first impression, and they’re all about projecting confidence:

  1. Your posture
  2. Your appearance
  3. Your facial expression

Thinking carefully about these will radically boost the effectiveness of your presentation. Make the audience like you, show them you’re someone they should listen to. Look positive and confident. That’s what we want to see in a speaker.

Think about how you look from the audience’s perspective.

Hold Your Head High

First off, how’s that posture?

Shoulders straight, walk at a steady pace with your head up, arms at your sides. We’ve all subconsciously sized you up as looking confident, relaxed, and implicitly trustworthy. Great first impression!

Whatever you do, watch those hunched shoulders, that quick walk with your head down, those arms crossed or held in front of you. That all makes you look a bit weak, lacking confidence. Is this the kind of person who’ll be able to persuade me? Maybe you are, but show up with bad posture, I and the other audience members now have some reservations about what comes next.

Be aware of how you stand, how you’re walking, what your arms are doing. Be aware of yourself and what your body is doing at all times. We see all of it, and it impacts our impression of you.

I naturally have pretty bad posture, but I know that. I also know to concentrate on fixing it when I stand in front of an audience. I push my shoulders back a bit, make sure my spine is straight, and that my head is tilted up. I feel stronger, look stronger, sound stronger. But most importantly, the audience sees a stance which says, “This guys is confident.” That immediately adds credibility to any speaker, and it will make the audience that much more likely to listen and give our message a fair shake.

We’re still close enough to our animal ancestors to recognize good posture as a sign of dominance, and poor posture as submissive and weak. We instinctively want to listen to someone who projects confidence and strength. Make sure your body language is giving that off before you even begin your presentation. But don’t forget it throughout, either! Don’t start slouching after your opening!

Beware Fashion Crimes

How’s your fashion sense? Are you dressed appropriately for the audience, looking clean and presentable? If so, then again we’ve sized you up as looking professional and confident. You’ve nailed that first impression!

Or . . . uh-oh, did you wear a business suit to a meeting at a startup? Is your hair messy, or worse, dandruffy? Are you wearing too much makeup? Are you unshaven, and not in a stylish manner? Is your tie loose, your jacket unbuttoned, your shoelaces untied? These seem like minor things, but each reduces your credibility to the audience. If you look sloppy, then again we’ve subconsciously tagged you, and not in a positive way.

Take a look in the mirror before you step into the room for that first impression. Make sure your clothes and appearance are giving the right impression. Dress for success. It can be a good idea to dress a little bit more formally than your audience, but not too much more. Show a bit of foresight by erring on the side of formality. That shows respect for the audience. Remember, it’s much easier to adjust your formality down (take off that jacket, undo that tie, loosen your hair) than up! 

It’s Not Poker

Let’s assume you’ve done everything right, and you’ve run the gauntlet. You have walked up to begin your presentation looking confident, neat, and professional. Maybe those first five seconds have elapsed, but you’re not out of the woods yet. You now turn to face the audience, and we can focus on your face. What do we see?

A smile and eye contact with the audience? Great!

A frown and eyes darting all over the room in panic, looking like you’re worried there’s a lion out in the audience? Uh-oh, audience confidence level down!

Or perhaps you have a poker face that you think makes you look serious and professional, like someone who should be respected and listened to? Watch out. You’ll come off as arrogant and cold before even opening your mouth.

Make the audience like you. A smile goes a long way, especially for a first impression. We instinctively react positively to smiles; it’s wired into us. We want to share in whatever is making you smile, we want to hear your words. Good eye contact, too, builds trust and inspires confidence. If we see your eyes looking everywhere rapidly, we see someone who is nervous, who looks like they’ll panic. Again, our brains are wired for this. Our confidence in you takes a dive.

So start by taking in the audience when you launch your presentation. Make it feel inclusive, makes us feel like we are part of the conversation, and that will give us a killer first impression.

Gorilla sitting with arms crossed, hunched shoulders, and nervous eyes, making a bad first impression
This guy’s got a lot going for him, but his body language isn’t giving us a great first impression! |Unsplash

Put It All Together to Create a Mood

Use that body language, dress, smile, and appearance to set a positive mood to begin your presentation. Sure, if your presentation involves delivering bad news, a smile may not be the most appropriate later on. But in most cases, a presentation is meant to be persuasive. People are persuaded more by positivity than by negativity.

Is any of this fair? Not really.

It’s true that our presentations should really be judged on the merits of our ideas. But humans are still animals, driven by a few hundred thousand years of instinct and reading body language for signs of dominance or submissiveness. You may still be able to persuade us even while giving off signals of weakness, but it’s going to be harder. It’s not going to persuade everyone as effectively.

Use good posture, a professional appearance, and a winning smile to create a positive mood at the start of your presentation. Set yourself up for success by creating that mood and giving the audience some reassurance that you are the kind of person we should trust and listen to. You’ll see it in their faces when they have confidence in you, and they’ll have confidence in you when you display it by your posture, clothing, smile, and eye contact.

Then we’ll be far more ready to listen to that awesome, life-changing message.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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