Tuesday February 18, 2014
The much repeated phrase “never judge a book by its cover” seems slightly redundant in this day and age. Yes, I am aware that appearances don’t count for everything and many inanimate and animate objects have hidden, deep stories that much outweigh their initial appearance. However, it is still the colourful, exciting front cover of a book which invites me to take it off the shelf over its dull and bland neighbour. And why not? The 21st century is a marketeers dream. Be it bookshops, web apps or restaurants, we have what we want at our fingertips, with unbelievable choice. And how we determine where to eat, what to read and latest game to download is swayed by our initial first impression – when we are absolutely judging ‘the cover’.
Just as book covers are essential in consumer choices, your appearance is essential for first impressions. Whilst I am a stoic believer in judging people by the content of their character over the label in their coat, I also believe that the best way to showcase your character is by how you appear. Indeed, research undertaken by New York University (2011) suggests that it takes a mere 7 seconds to be assessed when meeting somebody for the first time – ultimately appearances matter and as the cliché goes, we only have one chance to make a good first impression.
The impact of appearance can be seen quite clearly when considering Nelson Mandela. According to his biographer, Richard Stengel, Mandela was a man of substance; however he too was a believer that it made no sense not to judge by appearance: “his [Mandela’s] view is that if you want to play the part, you have to wear the right costume”. Throughout Mandela’s life, he abided by this notion: as a young lawyer in Johannesburg he wore bespoke suits to impress judges and clients, whilst in Robben Island his first victory came when he persuaded the authorities to allow him to wear trousers over shorts and when he became president he wore long dark suits which in his retirement he traded for colourful African shirts – a symbol of the new kind of power in South Africa, whereby an African leader did not need to dress in a Western style to be deemed acceptable.
The most notable image choice of Mandela’s life was his attendance at the rugby world cup in 1995. Rugby, in particular the Springbok Rugby Team, was detested by most black South Africans, due to the white elitist route into the sport. Indeed it was not uncommon for black South Africans to support the opposing team and celebrate a Springbok defeat. The jersey itself, worn by the Springbok team, was a symbol of privilege and separateness – in essence it embodied the apartheid. Therefore, Mandela’s decision to wear this jersey during the match and then celebrate the Springbok teams victory afterward resonated across the globe: Mandela had used the power of appearance to confer to the South African nation that he was not just at one with his own people, but also his oppressors.
So whilst we should always strive to judge people by their personality, whether trying to break down apartheid, or merely meeting a business associate, appearance is essential in creating a positive first impression. So how can we emulate Mandela’s success at the Rugby World Cup, within a business environment?
1. Straighten your posture
The easiest way to convey status and posture is through height and weight. Standing tall, pulling your shoulders back and smiling, are all signals of warmth, confidence and competence – essential to a powerful first impression.
2. Do your research
To make an impact with your appearance, it is first essential to know both how you want to appear and who you are appearing to. For example, power dressing in an expensive suit is less likely to create a favourable first impression if you are meeting an aid worker for an NGO. When dressing for that important meeting, consider social identity theory – those who can identify with you will instantly warm to you and you will therefore be more likely to have a fruitful first meeting.
3. Make eye contact and shake hands
Both these acts create a strong and confident first impression. Looking into someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness (tip: improve your eye contact by focussing on noticing the eye colour of everyone you meet). Meanwhile, a strong and firm handshake (no bone crunchers though please!) is viewed as the quickest way to establish rapport, with research suggesting it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake.
So to conclude, whilst we should always bear in mind to not judge a book by its cover, it is important to be aware that people are likely to be doing just this. Be sure to dress for your appearance, and even your next role, whatever you choose to be. First impressions are critical and a suitable appearance will see you well on the way to generating a great one.
Have you ever been mistaken in your first impressions?
Amy Clark writes after attending a one to one session with our expert in image, impact and first impressions – Jodi Goldman, do you need an image overhaul? Drop Sally@purplecubed.com an email to discuss.