Research shows that we make decisions about people within seconds of first seeing them—and that’s not always a bad thing. Our inclination to make these snap evaluations is likely rooted in our early evolutionary need to determine whether or not someone posed a threat. The challenge is in understanding what drives these quick attributions, and to what extent they are valid and useful in a modern day setting.

It’s only natural to make attributions about others based on what we observe during a first encounter. First impressions are typically formed during initial face-to-face meetings. Essentially you eye the person from across the room, then hear the individual utter a greeting as you approach and finally make contact by shaking hands.

To better understand the first impression, I reviewed research on how these elements act to influence how we come across to others during initial encounters. Here’s how to make a better first impression:

What You See in the Blink of an Eye

Researchers out of Princeton University have found that people make judgments about such things as trustworthiness, competence and likeability within a fraction of a second after seeing someone’s face—even if no words are exchanged.

In their study, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that out of all the traits examined, the participants judged trustworthiness the quickest (within 100 milliseconds). Even when given more time their judgments about trustworthiness typically didn’t change, which means our initial split-second assessments pretty much stick. 

However, in an interview with News at Princeton Todorov cautions, "the link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn't stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance." This is why it’s good to walk into any first meeting feeling confident and comfortable because it will likely show on your face.

It’s All in Your Pitch… Voice Pitch That Is

Recent research out of the University of Glasgow suggests that we make judgments about people’s personality based on the pitch of their voice. The researchers found that men and women who spoke with higher-pitched voices were rated as more trustworthy and likeable. Although these judgments may not necessarily be accurate, they are consistent.

However, speaking with a higher pitch isn’t always an advantage. Researchers out of the University of Miami (Klofstad, Anderson, & Peters; 2012) found that both men and women tend to associate lower-pitched voices with leadership and select leaders accordingly. The researchers note “that because women, on average, have higher-pitched voices than men, voice pitch could be a factor that contributes to fewer women holding leadership roles than men.”        

McAleer and his colleagues advise that “people and algorithms may be instructed on the necessary alterations to obtain a desired projection.” In other words, learning to control your pitch may be a powerful tool for making the right first impression.

Be Firm, Just Not too Firm

It’s long been said that a firm handshake is critical to making a good first impression. Researchers out of the University of Alabama found that a firm handshake was related to such traits as positivity, extraversion, and emotional expressiveness. The researchers also noted that women can benefit from a strong handshake to project confidence and assertiveness that is simple and not overstated. 

However, it’s important to note that other research has shown that demonstrating dominance through such things as a strong handshake can negatively impact your ability to establish trust when first meeting someone. Being too firm can overstate your need for dominance and potentially put the other party on the defensive. In other words, that good ‘ole firm handshake may at times be a bit too firm, so be mindful of the trade-off.     

Next time you walk into that sales meeting, job interview or networking event, be mindful of that first glance, moderate your pitch, and give a nice firm handshake.    

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. Dr. Woody is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership. Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook.