7 Seconds, 11 Decisions: The Right First Impression In A Virtual World

Well, the future is, as they say, here.

Walking to the offices of one of my clients a few weeks ago, for my last face-to-face coaching session before switching entirely online, I stared in astonishment at the vast brand new shiny office blocks that sat empty on one of Sydney’s new industrial parks. I could only imagine the dollars required to build and sustain these buildings, only to have them sit empty.

It was only 2 years ago that Fast Company predicted the use of remote technology would supersede face-to-face communication in the workplace, and that virtual reality conferencing would become the preferred method of communication for meetings.

Did we honestly think that we would be so abruptly propelled into this space?

It is highly likely that employers will apply the lessons learned from the impact of COVID-19 and quickly increase the number of employees working remotely and from home in the future. And studies such as this one show it to be more effective than once thought. On average, remote employees work 1.4 days more per month than office-based workers. This will be wonderful for those who were seeking greater flexibility.

In the meantime, are you shocked at what you have seen since the working world has moved almost entirely virtual and on camera? Surprised by what people wear, how they behave, and the state of their homes?

I know I am! Sadly, to the point of being nauseated – even depressed at times – by dark spaces, cluttered rooms, too much skin, and general dishevelment.

To make things worse, we’ve seen enough horror stories circulating about how not to communicate virtually, that we’re almost now expecting the chaos before we even log-on, aren’t we?  So you’re going to have to work that much harder to avoid the “What the…..?” reaction (which is what I often find myself asking at the start of my virtual interactions and observations).

What was the important content of the meeting? I’m not sure I can remember!

We are in unchartered territory and there is much uncertainty about what lies ahead. However, I’m compelled to speak out and remind everyone in the virtual working world that it has never been more important to take care of your first impression in our entirely new and heightened dimension of virtual impact.  Leaders and entrepreneurs must retain their credibility, influence and impact and ensure they are remaining aligned to their personal brand, products and services.

The stakes are high.

Take a look at the science behind a 1st impression

It takes just seven seconds for we humans to make critical decisions about you, much of which is determined by your face alone.

In fact, research from Dr. Michael Solomon’s work at the Graduate School of Business at New York University suggests that during those seven seconds, we make up to 11 major decisions. Eleven major decisions! That’s a lot in just seven seconds.

So what do those dirty dishes or that cluttered office or your slogan t-shirt or your wall art say about you? What impression are you creating? And how does it differ from the impression you once created in person?

The impact of confirmation bias

Here’s where it can get even more tricky for you. It’s what happens after that first impression is made that is most important. And that is a powerful source that is either working for you or against you called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the brain’s preference to ignore any signs that go against someone’s first impression of you, and instead to seek signs that their first impression was correct.

To put it simply, first impressions are really tough to change because we typically don’t search for evidence to challenge our opinion. We look for evidence to validate it. Not only is this simple brain performance distracting your audience, but it’s also doing you a disservice if the impression isn’t what you had hoped for.

Before you’ve spoken a word, you’ve made an impression

In this digital age, you make an impression long before you enter a room, be that virtual or in person.  The chances are high that you’ve been googled or checked out on LinkedIn or even Facebook – perhaps all three platforms, and more.

Think about it for a minute – when you’re looking for a new product or service, what do you do? You go straight online to do your research. You search Google, websites, profiles, and reviews. And exactly the same happens to you, because you also represent products and services. We’re searching for your profile, website, posts, comments, articles, likes, endorsements, photos and videos, and what we find becomes your first impression.

You can now add to that search list what we find when you appear on that virtual conference.  (Here’s an article I wrote on making a positive impact when appearing on camera that may be useful).

No longer can you rely on the behavioural and communicative interactions to support your first impression – a strong handshake, engaging eye contact, and confident posture.  You have the confines of a computer screen to make your mark, much of which centers on your face, your shoulders, and whatever you’re revealing in the background. So you’ve got to make it count.

The imprint you leave us with

How do you want to be remembered?

With all your interactions, in person and online, what you want your first impression to be starts with the imprint you want to leave in the minds of others.

What do you want people to be saying about you, when you’re not there to hear it? What words and phrases do you want people to use to describe you, when your virtual interaction is over? Take some time to define this, and then make sure that everything we see is aligned.

Bottom line. To create a positive and lasting first impression here are 3 things to consider;

  • Be respectful. Cover up, please. This applies to men and women. These are uncertain and challenging times and people are looking for credibility and professionalism. Skin is distracting and inappropriate, at the best of times.
  • Be yourself. It’s important for authenticity, but do consider the overall impression you want to create. If you wouldn’t wear it to the office or to meet a client then you probably shouldn’t wear it in a virtual meeting either. You can retain authenticity without compromising professionalism – they’re not mutually exclusive.
  • Be aware. You’re inviting your team, your boss, colleagues, clients and customers into what is for many a very private space – your home. What are they going to find when they get there and what does it all say about you?

There has never been a more important time to understand and evaluate how you’re portraying yourself online and monitor your digital and virtual footprint. Act and manage it just as diligently as you would your physical one, let confirmation bias work for you, and stand out for all the right reasons.

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Written By Michaela Betchley

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