If you live in a big city you might make hundreds or even thousands of first impressions every day, but only a select few hold any personal importance and those often revolve around your career. In situations like meeting with a new client, a major presentation or an interview for the job you’ve always wanted, it’s vital to impress from the off.
Naturally some of that will come down to what you’re saying, but if you don't also nail other important factors like body language and tone of voice, there’s a chance that what you say will get ignored no matter how great it is. As the great stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard once said, it’s “70% how you look, 20% how you sound, and 10% what you actually say”. Appear assertive and convincing, and you can sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” from start to finish without knowing the words.
For advice on how to make a good first impression we talked to Charlie Walker-Wise, client director and tutor at RADA in Business, which teaches the skills that the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Art imparts to both aspiring actors and people looking to make it in the business world. According to Walker-Wise, there are seven areas to focus on when looking to make a great first impression.
1. Leave Your Baggage At The Door
“One of the key mistakes that people make is that they’re not really aware of what they carry into a space,” says Walker-Wise. “You can get very caught up in worries like ‘it’s my first day, I’m really nervous’ or ‘this is a new client, it’s really big’, which you carry as baggage into the room. It’s only once you’re in the room that you look up and see the people and the space you’re engaging with.
“You need to have done that worrying beforehand. That requires stopping – literally, physically – before you walk through the door and asking ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I want to engage with this space?’”
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2. Take The Spotlight Off Yourself
“It’s not about you. That may sound ridiculous for a job interview, but actually if you can place your focus on the other people you’re interacting with, what they need becomes more clear to you,” says Walker-Wise.
“If you’re delivering a presentation then – in a weird way – you’re the least important person in the room. What’s really important is that other people receive the message. If you remember you’re in service of them, you take the pressure off yourself and you’ll feel better.
“When we work with actors, we teach that good acting is not about you – it’s about trying to affect the people you’re on stage with. In any conversation, you’re trying to make others understand your point of view.”
3. Keep Your Eyes Open
“It’s amazing how often people walk in with their eyes partly or even fully closed – they’re not really absorbing the information available to them,” says Walker-Wise.
“Make sure you can see the space you’re entering. That also makes you available to other people. What they see is someone coming into a room or stepping up to a projector who seems to be curious about what is going on in the room because, quite literally, they can see that person’s eyes.
“If you’re always aware that you need to be available to these people, you tend to focus on them – literally look at them more. I can spot a good relationship between two people, because they’re exchanging looks – that tells me something about the dynamics of the room.”
4. Breathe From The Belly
“How you use your posture is important,” says Walker-Wise. “Breathe low in the belly, which gives the appearance of credibility, authority and gravitas.
“When you’re panicked and stressed your breath rises up higher in the chest and becomes short. I do an exercise where I start breathing from my chest as I’m talking to people and I can see them get visibly uncomfortable immediately. I ask what’s changed about me and they say I look anxious. I ask how it makes them feel and they say they don’t feel comfortable – they’re holding their breath. As soon as I change my breath, other people react in the same way. If I appear stressed, it stresses out the people I’m talking to.
“The way you learn to overcome that is through practice. Start by trying to notice when your breath becomes shorter. Is it when someone barks at you at work, or bumps you on the train? What you need to do to relieve that is not breathing in, it’s breathing out. Release that breath in order to be able to take in a new breath, new energy, and get rid of the tension that has crept in.”
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5. Vary Your Tone Of Voice
“There are some obvious things like not speaking too quietly or loudly,” says Walker-Wise. “But the thing that people aren’t so aware of is how they use tone, pitch and rhythm in their speech to keep the listener’s ear engaged.
“If you speak with a very monotonous voice or get into habitual patterns of speech, it’s very easy for the other person to switch off. The brain thinks it’s heard it before, even if the content is different.
“You have a responsibility to the people you’re communicating with to vary your tone, pitch and rhythm so you can ‘surprise’ their ears as they listen. We can all do it – we speak very differently when warning someone stepping out in front of a car from when a child brings us a picture they’ve drawn – but in professional context it can be easy to forget to energise the ideas you’re communicating.
“One thing to start doing is training your ear. Start listening. Listen to newsreaders, who use a fantastic range of tone. It’s nothing to do with accent – it’s to do with the confidence to reach high or low in terms of pitch to express ideas more clearly. That shows the listener what is important.
“The other thing is to find out where your limits of pitch are. Practise at home by physically reaching high on certain words, or stretching in different directions, or making sudden movements. As the body moves the word will move as well. Obviously in a job interview you’re not going reach across the room but it become a physical memory. Speech is just movement, and if you want to move people with your words, you have to move your words.”
6. Stay Grounded
“It’s really important that you feel that you have a stable base beneath you,” says Walker-Wise. “We have positive language around this – saying someone is grounded or down to earth, or that someone has gravitas, which relates to gravity.
“It’s about finding the right balance between relaxation and tension. If you get de-energised you give in to gravity too much – think of stroppy teenagers slouching. If you get too tense, you become sergeant major-like, with energy shifting up into the chest.
“People often have locked knees when they’re stressed, which immediately disconnects you from the floor. Other people bounce on their heels, which means you are very disconnected from the floor, with tension sitting high in the body. Avoid doing things like this and you’ll release that tension and attain gravitas.”
7. Have The Confidence To Ask Questions
“You’ve got to be interested in them,” says Walker-Wise. “That’s really important. Be present in the moment. Hear what the other person is saying and be able to respond to it. If you’re not clear about something then have the confidence to ask them to reframe it, or say you don’t know that right now, but you will get them the answer.
“It can be worrying because you don’t want to lose face, but it can be very powerful. Be curious. Be fully physically and vocally engaged – that really matters.”
For more information about RADA In Business, radainbusiness.com
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.