The January 2015 Harvard Business Review article – Managing Yourself – A Second Chance to Make the Right Impression – shares the science and the thought processes that go into how first impressions are made. The point of Ms. Halvorson’s article is show us how to give yourself a second chance if a first impression is wrong. My interest in her article was to learn how to get an interview first impression right. After all, with interviewing (or sales calls), we almost never get a second chance to make a fantastic interview first impression.  

The Problem With First Impressions.

In Ms. Halvorson’s words, during a “brief first meeting, the (interviewer) has too much to notice, understand, and act on to give you undivided, unbiased attention.” Instead, they form a snap judgement based on “stereotypes, and other assumptions – using cues like your physical appearance, your organizational role, and your body language to fill in the blanks.” It’s not difficult to understand how these snap judgements lead to false first impressions. As she puts it, “the way we see one another can be irrational, incomplete, and inflexible.” In my own line of work, I hear “I knew within five minutes” from Sales Managers far too often. Unfortunately this leads to mishires which I blog about here. There is hope though.

How Interview First Impressions are Made.

There are two phases in evaluating another person. Phase one is described above. Should the (interviewer) grant a second meeting (or decide to dig deeper in the first meeting) they enter phase two of evaluating the other person. In this phase, the interviewer according to Halvorson “has to work a lot harder, paying closer attention, gathering disparate data, and making sense of it to draw informed, thoughtful conclusions about you.” The key then, is to trigger the second phase of evaluation. For Sales Managers wanting to read candidates correctly, it’s really as simple as forcing yourself to conduct thorough and thoughtful interviews. I can think of several examples of Sales Managers sharing feedback that they felt a candidate was probably a lot stronger than they interviewed that day. In my view, that’s automatic grounds for a follow-up interview with that candidate. But what about the candidate in this situation? What could they have done differently?

Overcoming Interview First Impression Biases.

The surest and easiest way per Halvorson, to “get other people to want to perceive you correctly – to make phase two processing worth their while – is to ensure that you have a role in their success.” This triggers outcome dependency, meaning that they potentially may need you to get what they want. Creating the potential for outcome dependency requires that you do your homework, have thoughtful questions at the ready (to better understand their problem) and to start with the right intention. To quote Zig Ziglar “You can have anything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” Used correctly and with sincerity, the intention of helping others achieve their goals is the most powerful tool available to you to help create a favorable interview first impression.

Achieving a fantastic first impression also requires understanding how you are viewed through an interviewer’s “trust lens.” Halvorson isolates two key aspects of your character: your warmth and your competence. She describes warmth as “your expression of friendliness, respect, and empathy” and your competence as “evidence that you are intelligent, skilled, and effective.” In my own experience, understanding your audience is key to getting the warmth/competence balance right. The following advice is geared towards interviewing for a sales job. When interviewing with HR professionals, it is critical to get warmth right. They, after all, are charged with finding candidates that are good citizens and align with company values. With sales leaders, motivated by hitting their numbers, competence becomes a bigger consideration. Lastly, consider the audience that you will ultimately be selling to. An enlightened interviewer will pick a candidate that best appeals to the style and needs of their customers.  

Putting it Together to Nail the Interview First Impression:

  1. Research your audience.
  2. Find the right warmth/competence balance.
  3. Focus on your audience’s needs.
  4. Read the full HBR article. It’s a good one.