Why seek to improve the way we write and speak? One reason that is often cited is to make a good first impression. But what does that mean, exactly? What are first impressions based on? It turns out, we have a research-based answer to that question.
Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, in her book, Presence, says people judge you quickly based on two factors:
- Can I trust this person?
- Can I respect this person?
These two dimensions are known by psychologists as warmth and competence. Interestingly, most people – according to Cuddy – get their priority wrong. She says there is a tendency, especially in professional settings, to assume that competence is the more important of the two. Not so! It turns out that we assess another person’s trustworthiness before that person’s competence even becomes an issue. After all, to use a caveman analogy, I need to know if you’re going to kill or rob me before I even concern myself with how good a fire-builder you might be.
In short, warmth is the most important thing. In other words, to cite an aphorism which I frankly find grating, although I can’t deny its truth, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Sadly, this is not good news for those of us who, like me, tend to fall into the trap of needing to demonstrate competence above all else.
But while we may not have much choice about our innate tendencies, we do have a choice about the language we use. And therein lies hope for those of us who otherwise might be labeled as “competent but cold.” You see, according to researcher Brené Brown, one of the keys to building trust is the willingness to be vulnerable with others. Knowing this, and understanding the importance of making an emotional connection with my audiences, I have learned that as a speaker I must share stories of my failures as well as my successes. And which should come first? The failures, because they make me “warmer” and more trustworthy. Remember, build trust before displaying competence!
Here’s how this plays out in practice. In one of the seminars I present, it’s important that the audience perceive me as having expertise in project management. And, to my credit, I have stories that establish that expertise. But before I share any of them, I start with a story of when I failed miserably as a project manager. Believe me, this did not feel good the first time I practiced it! But what happened was, I received very positive feedback when I opened my seminar that way. Instead of thinking, “Well, of course these ideas will work for him – he’s exceptional,” my participants were thinking, “If he can go from failure to success, I guess I can, too!”
Now that I know of Amy Cuddy’s research finding, this makes perfect sense. My listeners first wanted to know they could trust me – if not with their lives, then at least with their attention – and only then did they assess my competence to teach them. Build trust first, and then prove your competence. It’s the proven way to make a good first impression.