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First Impressions Matter: What Can You Do in Seven Seconds?

It only takes seconds to make an impression.  It seems the research varies from 1/10th of a second to 30 seconds (with an average of 7 seconds).  The fact remains, we judge quickly and others are doing the same when we first meet.  The question is, what can we do about it?

A lot of people take for granted the powerful tools they have to create lasting impressions that help them every day in their communications with business customers and colleagues and help them to achieve their goals and aspirations.

Deepak Malhotra, Harvard Business School professor and author of Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond, has studied interviewing and negotiating for a new position and stated this tip on the equation to get more of what you want interviewing for a job which also applies to selling your ideas and products.  He says, “First, they need to like you…They have to believe that you deserve it. It’s not enough that you believe you deserve it, it has to be justifiable to them. Don’t ever ask for something without giving the reason why you deserve it…”

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist on faculty at the Harvard Business school, spoke on the topic of body language and cited a study where interactions between doctors and patients were recorded and people watching the tapes were asked to judge “niceness” of the doctor based on their body language. These judgments predicted the likelihood of the physician getting sued based on the “niceness factor” and how they interact with the patient (and it had nothing to do with their competence).

When we first meet someone, she suggests that we form not one impression, but two. “We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question, ‘What are this person’s intentions toward me?’ And we’re also asking ourselves, “How strong and competent is this person?’” states Cuddy. Her research shows that these two traits, trustworthiness and confidence, account for 80 to 90 percent of the first impression.

Cuddy says, “…in general, I really think people make the mistake of over-weighting the importance of expressing strength and competence, at the expense of expressing warmth and trustworthiness. I think this is a mistake. How can you possibly be a good leader if the people who are supposed to be following you don’t feel that you understand them? How is it possible? No one is going to listen if they don’t trust you. Why would they? Why should they? Trust opens them up to what you have to say. It opens them up to your strength and confidence. Trust is the conduit through which ideas travel.”

Why is this important?  According to Brian Tracy, Chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International, a company specializing in the training and development of individuals and organizations,  “If you are in sales or business, the way you are perceived by someone, which will largely determine the influence you have over him or her, will be strongly affected by your level of credibility, your ethos. In the area of personal credibility, the rule is that everything counts. Everything you do or don’t do either adds to or takes away from your credibility and your capability to influence someone. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, in essence, that what you are, shouts at me so loudly, I cannot hear a word you are saying. Ethos is very important.”

Projecting confidence and trustworthiness to enhance others’ perceptions of you can be controlled through your speech, language and voice skills.  Ultimately, these characteristics will open doors to opportunities and certainly increase your status. Since we are constantly rating people on passion, enthusiasm, comfort levels, confidence and authenticity, the process of evaluating and controlling the impact of your speech and voice elements becomes a crucial part of getting what we want, getting what our company wants and influencing others.  It is a science and an art that takes intentional practice to create a vocal sound that exudes confidence and trustworthiness.  There are other elements to develop as well, like the clothing you wear, your body language and manners, but the “sound” of your speech, language and voice is a very important component worth mastering.

Here are seven tips to help you master your speech, language and voice skills and project confidence, trustworthiness, credible and likability.

  1. Talk slowly. Be relaxed, calm, and laid back.   Not being reactive to the conversation is a skill you can and must master.  Think about your own experience of encountering someone who is in a hurry.  As a listener, it often makes one feel tense and on guard.  Feeling rushed also doesn’t endear us to the speaker because we feel like the person doesn’t have time for us.  A good rate of speech is between 140-160 words per minute.  It feels calm and soothing to be with someone who is speaking at a comfortable rate.  Check your rate of speech by reading a 200-word passage.  Set the timer for one minute.  When it goes off, mark the reading where you ended up.  Then count the words.  Were you faster or slower than 140-160 words?  Can you measure, in your mind, if this rate is comparable to your conversational speech rate?  If not, practice the passage until you can get your rate between 140-160 words so you can feel/hear the rate you should be.
  1. Show passion in your voice. A passionate person is obvious when they speak at a key (or pitch level) that fits the content of the message.  Energy in the voice doesn’t mean that you need to talk faster, but rather use the higher part of your pitch range to express and correspond with your message.  According to Jeffrey Hahner, et al, in Speaking Clearly, we have three keys that we use to express ourselves.  The middle key is the pitch level we use when we are engaging in conversational in most settings.  The low-key is the lower pitch in our range where we express ourselves when we have bad news, feel down, sad or speak serious content.  The high key is where we express ourselves most passionately.  When you feel passion about something, you use a higher pitch (in your range) to tell someone the news.
  1. Use a friendly/warm tone to sound approachable, friendly and likable. Using a lot of vocal variety is the way to accomplish this.  An expressive person uses pitch changes frequently both up and down.  The vowels of stressed syllables and words are held longer in duration and higher and pitch.  If you have heard a monotone voice, you know that warmth is not present when the pitch is flat. To sound friendly and warm, use pitch changes.
  1. Eliminate distractions from your speech that take away from your message. There are many distractions that can interfere with the message and take your listener’s focus away from you.  A few common examples are frequent word fillers (um, you know what I mean, and, so, etc), upward inflection of vocal pitch at the end of sentences (sounds like you are asking a question), or glottal fry (when you use a pitch that is at the bottom of your pitch range…the voice sounds rough and harsh). Listeners will not take speakers seriously when distractors are present because they focus on the distraction rather than the content of the message.
  1. Eliminate tension to eliminate a high-pitched voice (more common in women) and or a shaky voice. The presence of a high-pitched voice or a shaky voice correlates to the confidence level of the speaker. When nervous, we can demonstrate this in many ways but for many people, it shows up in their voice.  Deep breathing and relaxation techniques are simple ways to bring down tension caused by nerves and fear.   Some people can reduce their tension by doing push-ups before their presentations.
  1. Be loud enough. An inability to project your voice will certainly diminish your ability to convey your message.  Rather the message conveyed is that the speaker lacks confidence.  And often times, the listener becomes annoyed with not being able to hear the speaker. To increase loudness you must learn to control it through your abdominal muscles and push air more forcefully through your vocal cords. Fear or tension can obstruct the ability to use the proper breath support because the breathing muscles aren’t relaxed.  If tension and fear are your roadblocks to successful speech and voice production, you must “Fake it until you make it,” says Amy Cuddy because when you pretend, you are likely to feel more confident.
  1. Use strong diction/articulation. Sloppy speech or speech that is hard to understand will affect professionalism.  Perceptions associated with a speaker who doesn’t articulate well include sounding uneducated and unprofessional.  Problems in this area are caused by bad habits, the presence of a regional accent, or a strong foreign accent.  In order to perfect speech sounds (consonants and vowels), it takes superb auditory discrimination and muscle control.  It also requires a lot of practice to get to the point where the sounds are made automatically.  Practicing every day for a few minutes can make all the difference and reap big changes.

Learning speech, language and voice control techniques are essential to your professional success.  If you want to reach your goals of achieving promotions, selling more products and your ideas, being influential and having more impact, you must be confident, trustworthy and likable.  Use your speech language and voice skills to establish these characteristics and you will definitely go places!

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About the Author Lynda Stucky

Lynda Stucky coaches mid-senior level executives on using their speech and voice effectively to establish credibility, position themselves within their company, and enhance their reputation as a topic authority. She provides training through one-on-one coaching and online courses to reduce foreign accents, “redd-up” regional accents, and teach speech and voice branding for image control. She is President of ClearlySpeaking, and is a certified and licensed speech-language pathologist. She is the author of "Voice Branding for Executives: How to Align Your Speech, Language, and Voice Skills with Your Professional Goals." Her background in speech pathology offers unique skills for dealing with professional communication skills in the corporate world. She believes communication skills should not hold anyone back from achieving personal and professional goals.

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