I will never forget the day I went to a continuing legal education presentation and a respected female attorney took off her sandals, sat barefoot in a seat right in front of the first audience member, and gave her presentation. Oh, and she wasn’t wearing a suit either – just a little tank top and slacks. Seriously.
Do I even need to analyze what is wrong with this picture? Every time I tell this story I get a huge laugh, accompanied by shocked expressions, from nearly everyone in my audience. Can you imagine what her audience was thinking?
Impressions in seconds, not minutes
First impressions are made faster than ever before. Many years ago, when I began asking audience members how long they thought it took to make a first impression, they would usually shout out some length of time between three and five minutes. In the mid-2000’s the answer shortened to between one and three minutes. More recently, the audience usually shouts out variants of seconds — “five seconds” “ten seconds.” These days it’s rare for anyone to even guess as high as 30 seconds.
And they’re not wrong. In 2003, a release from PR Web said that “Psychologists, writers and seminar leaders caution that you only have seven to 17 seconds of interacting with strangers before they form an opinion of you.” More recently, Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, reported that the decisions may occur much faster — think instantaneously or in two seconds.
In the last few decades, people have become more judgmental, more critical, and much more quick to make assumptions about a person. The communications and PR professionals I speak with attribute this to not just information overload, but to our media-saturated society. We are used to life in 30-second sound bytes and our subconscious adjusts to information input accordingly. And the younger the audience — the more familiar your audience is with Youtube and Vimeo — the more critically they will view the visual input they are receiving.
Speech prep begins in your closet
What does this mean to the speaker? It means you don’t get a grace period. You don’t get to stroll into a room, ignore your audience, sit on a dias, eat some food and shuffle your papers, play with your microphone, or chat with your co-presenters without ever looking at your audience – not without them judging you the entire time.
Because you want to be building your credibility and your likability from the moment your audience meets you, you have to pay attention to everything, not just the words you’ll be saying. You have to pay attention to your image before you leave your house. This means:
- You have to think about what you’re going to wear – preferably before you are standing undressed in front of your closet and have no time to get a suit that fits or buy a new top, tie or shoes.
- You have to have your papers organized before you walk into the room or up to the dais.
- You have to ensure you are using good posture – no slumping.
- You want to make eye contact and some small talk with your audience the moment you walk into the room.
In short, it means that you have to do a little extra work and go to a little extra effort. But that work will pay off in a big way when you begin to speak to an audience that has already seen that you valued your message and valued their time enough to want to earn their respect.