As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. When it comes to job interviews, you had best make it a good one. Powerful unconscious processes are at work when we first meet someone, and these play a pivotal role in how strongly you impress, in the first few moments, those who interview you.
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What are these unconscious processes?
1. Can I Trust You?
First, at an automatic, unconscious level, the interviewer is assessing whether or are "friend or foe" and deciding how much trust they can safely extend to you.
In assessing trustworthiness, the primary question that gets asked is, "Is this person going to look out for my best interests?" If the unconscious answer is "Yes," then trust will, tentatively, be extended and the interviewer will be open to you. If the answer is "No" or "I don't know," then the interviewer will become super alert, looking for information that will confirm their initial negative impression.
The tricky thing is that, in an interview situation, many panel members turn up expecting that candidates are trying to dupe them, so gaining trust is not easy.
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2. How Important and Valuable Are You?
The second thing that happens automatically and unconsciously is that the interviewer assesses how important and valuable you might be in helping them meet their own goals – of which they are also unconscious.
For example, some of the concerns running in the background for an interviewer might include how happy other team members might be with the person they choose, whether choosing you will make them look good, how likely you might be to help them in their own career goals, and many other self-centered – but unconscious – considerations.
When forming their first impression of you, the interviewer assigns you a rating of how valuable you are to them and their own goals way before they start assessing how valuable you might be to the organization.
The 5 Elements of Making a Good First Impression
With all this unconscious assessment happening in the background, you have to consciously make sure you are creating a positive first impression that signals you are trustworthy and valuable to the interviewer. Five ways you can do this are:
Create Positive Emotional Contagion
Attend to Your Image
Project Trustworthy Body Language
Demonstrate Your Social Skills
1. Create Positive Emotional Contagion
Emotions are contagious. Enter the interview with positive emotions, and you will start an upward spiral of positive emotional contagion and the panel will catch your positive mood. Enter the interview with negative emotions – such as doubt, anxiety, or fear – and you will start a downward spiral of negative emotions.
The key here is that you have to manage your emotions prior to the interview so that you enter the room feeling positive. The panel members will catch your positive emotions and feed them back to you, starting a positive spiral. The danger is that negative spirals are easier to create, considering just how nervous interviews make most of us feel.
2. Be Authentic
There is a fine line between managing the impression you want to make and staying true to who you are. While there are image and body language rules that underpin how open others are to you, these rules should never get in the way of you being genuine and authentic.
It is exhausting to try to appear as you think people want you to appear, and it is almost impossible to keep up the pretense for long. You also don't want the panel to select you based on a false image of who you are, because once you show up on that first day, people will realize the fit is not right.
Humans have sophisticated antenna for spotting fake behavior, and any hint of bullsh*t will lead to mistrust. Don't try to be anyone other than who you are.
3. Attend to Your Image
Your appearance, like it or not, has a significant impact on the first impression you make. Consistent research shows that attractive applicants, when all other factors are controlled, have higher rates of success.
With lightening speed, the interviewer takes in your skin color, gender, and age, assessing the degree to which you are similar to them. The more similar you are, the more they will like and trust you. They then gauge your personal hygiene for any concerns about contamination or disease contagion. After that, they give you an assessment of fitness, which is used to determine your levels of self-control and attractiveness.
And this all happens in a split second – before you have a chance to smile or reach out for a handshake.
There is not always a lot you can do about your appearance, and most people naturally try to present themselves as attractively as they can. Here's a quick rundown of a few appearance-related preparations you should take before an interview:
- Get a good haircut
- Make sure you skin, clothes, and nails are clean
- Polish your shoes
- Get a good night's sleep to keep your eyes clear
- Trim your fingernails
- Attend to unsightly facial hair
- Cover your tattoos and remove controversial body piercings
- Brush your teeth
- Check your smell (perfume and aftershave can be offensive to some people)
- Check your breath (have a mint before the interview)
Don't give the interviewer any cause to feel even a slight level of disgust about your personal image. If they do, their own innate and unconscious drive for personal protection will kick in, and they will protect themselves against exposure to you – a.k.a, they won't hire you.
4. Project Trustworthy Body Language
Trust is conveyed subconsciously through the following body language:
- Comfort with eye contact
- An open, upright stance or sitting position
- A strong, steady voice
- A smile (especially if it is one that reaches to your eyes)
- Clear diction
- A firm, dry handshake
This package of gestures signals to other people that you are not trying to mislead them, so they can, tentatively, extend trust to you.
Eye contact is a skill we can all become progressively better at. Think of it as a muscle: The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes and the better you become at judging the appropriate level you can maintain in various situations before it comes across as aggressive. Most people stay well back from this dangerous upper limit and can safely increase the level of eye contact they engage in.
When it comes to posture, aim for a straight back, with your shoulders down and back, your head held level, and your jaw slightly forward. You should be able to comfortably hang your arms at your sides, or, if sitting, rest them on your thighs or the desk in front of you.
The lower and steadier your voice, the better. Rising inflection at the end of sentences is a common speech pattern, but it is nonetheless something to curb and control. This takes lots of practice. Your words need to be clear and your vocabulary free of slang. Avoid hesitations like "umm," "ah," and "so" as much as you can.
All smiles are not equal, and the more you can genuinely engage a smile that reaches up to your eyes (these are called "Duchenne smiles"), the more trustworthy you will seem.
Finally, you should practice comfortably extending your hand for a handshake. Ensure that your hand lands palm to palm. Your grip should be firm, but not crushing, and your hand should meet the other person's about midway between the two of you.
4. Demonstrate Your Social Skills
Be punctual and polite. Say "Please" and "Thank you." Mind your manners. Look for ways you can be kind or helpful to panel members – for example, hold the door open for them. Keep the conversation focused on the other person rather than turning it back to you – for example, if they mention they took a walk over the weekend, you should ask where they walked, rather than say that you also went for a walk.
Practice Making a Good First Impression
How, you might ask, do you accomplish all this under the pressure of an interview? The answer is that you don't wait until the interview. You need to practice long before any interview is on the horizon.
A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.
Katherine Street is the director of People Flourishing.