It's all about the first 5 seconds

Feb 13, 2022

If I asked you how much a stranger could learn about you in just five seconds, you’d probably say ‘Not much.’ How could the stranger assess your personality, your values, your beliefs, your aptitudes, your kindness in just five seconds?

But if I asked that stranger how much they could learn about you in five seconds, they may well reply ‘As much as I need to know.’

Now, before you start challenging me, let me give you some context. I’m talking about how audiences assess you - on first sight - when you stand before them to deliver a speech or presentation.

In my presentation skills workshops I always tell people the audience will have taken critical decisions about a presenter BEFORE the person has spoken a single word.

So I was pleased to see a research document published by the University of Toronto that validates my warning.

The psychological study found that most people need only five seconds to gauge the charisma and leadership of a speaker. 

“Five seconds of flat tone and stiff delivery could sap your audience’s patience and turn their attention to their inbox. But five good seconds can establish your authority as the subject matter expert and build empathy with your audience,” writes Nicole Lowenbraun in a review of the study on the duarte.com website.

So first impressions really do matter, especially in the virtual world. If you are in the room with an audience, you do have a little wiggle-room to recover from a negative first impression. It’s much harder to do that in the virtual world, where the audience receives very limited body language clues to help them assess your charisma and leadership.

Those first impressions determine how we respond to a new person. Are they likeable? Trustworthy? Do they seem like they have something worth saying? Or do we feel skeptical, suspicious?

So what sort of first impressions do you think people get from YOU, especially if you are on a video call? 

How can you get them interested, engaged, leaning forward in their chairs? Here are a few ideas:

Look the part. Whether live or virtual, look smart. Dress to match the occasion.

Look confident. Stand tall. Make eye contact. Own the room. The report notes: “Cues like eye contact, facial behavior, and body movement affect perceptions of success and power.”

Be prepared. Have your notes in order. Check in advance that the technology works.

Start strong. If you only have five seconds to win the audience’s trust, don’t waste the time with housekeeping notes and chit chat. Have something to say that will instantly hook the audience’s attention.

Be varied in content and delivery. Don’t rely on a relentless diet of facts and charts. Throw in some stories. Mix in some metaphors. The University of Toronto report noted: “Charismatic leaders use metaphors and other linguistic structures to convince their followers of their idealized vision.”

Be energized. How can you expect an audience to be excited in the topic if they don’t get a sense of excitement from you? If you are speaking virtually, try standing rather than sitting. Your voice will be stronger. You’ll be more alert. (If you are standing to present virtually, make sure you raise the computer or web cam to eye level).

Move with purpose. If you are live in front of an audience, don’t wander about aimlessly. What may be relaxing to you can be distracting to others. Use hand gestures that come naturally to you. 

I’m not arguing that it’s a good thing to judge people so quickly. I’m simply saying that quick judgments are made all the time. So if we need to engage and persuade an audience, we need to be aware that those first few seconds are critical.

The authors of the University of Toronto study had this to say: “Charisma has a potential to make a tremendous impact on people and society. We make inferences about charisma on a daily basis and in a matter of seconds."

So make those first five seconds count.