During my 20 year career as a recruitment consultant, I estimate I’ve interviewed around 10,000 candidates. Some of the most impressive and impactful candidates I’ve met didn’t initially look that good on paper. But face to face, they have an impact, they have that special secret sauce called ‘gravitas’.
Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Those candidates who make me feel something – excitement that we can work together; a personal connection or simply trust that they will do the job to the best of their ability – are the people who stand out.
On the flip side, the shifty candidate who sat in my office on a hot summer’s day and refused to take off his woolly hat and thick winter coat, despite the fact that he was sweating profusely, made me feel uncomfortable and suspicious.
What was he hiding under there? I didn’t contact him again.
We form an impression of people within seven seconds of meeting them face to face. We’re visual animals. It’s instinctive to assess whether we are safe in someone’s company, or whether we should be alert to a potential threat. Many generations ago this intuition would have helped our ancestors to survive.
Whether we intend to or not, and even in the absence of threat, we form judgments about people almost immediately.
Here are a few tips to help you stand out from the crowd in a positive way and increase your chances of having an impact on people, particularly in an interview or professional situation.
1. Dress the part
The golden rule when meeting people in a professional situation is to dress for where you’re going, not where you’ve been.
Working virtually has changed our standards somewhat. But I still dress for work (yes, including replacing my pajama bottoms with something work-appropriate).
If you want to become a leader in your organisation, dress like the leader. If you’re going to meet a prospective client, dress like them. Appearing dishevelled or dressing too casually for your audience can come across as disrespectful.
If you’re unsure, a suit is the default setting – you’re much better off being overdressed than underdressed. Even when our candidates go to interviews with companies that dress casually, we advise them to dress for a professional environment.
2. Manage your physical state
A strong handshake is really important for making a positive first impression. A limp handshake feels creepy. What I call a ladylike handshake – when people just take hold of your fingertips – is unprofessional and lacks authority. Go for the space between the other person’s thumb and forefinger and hold on! But don’t be a bone-crusher.
Making eye contact demonstrates your ability to connect with other people and shows them that you are focusing on them and listening. If you want everyone to focus on you, you should focus on them.
Stay still! If you fidget, shuffle papers, scratch, shift in your seat, you’re creating a distraction from what you’re saying. Fidgeting makes people look nervous or unprepared.
3. Manage your emotional state
If you’re anxious, you make your audience anxious and they will find it difficult to process what you’re saying. The simplest way to overcome anxiety is to force yourself to smile. Smiling changes our brain chemistry, releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin which helps fight stress, lower our heart rate and blood pressure and lift our mood.
Smiling is contagious and is a powerful way to influence and have a positive impact. Dale Carnegie, the author of the classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, said “when dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
4. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
According to research by Professor Albert Mehrabian, content is the least important aspect of good communication and influencing skills.
People are more likely to believe a poor argument that’s well presented, than a good argument that’s poorly presented.
Don’t you just hate it when people go up at the end of their sentences? When every sentence becomes a question? It’s called the Australian Question Intonation and it makes people sound unsure of themselves?
It also imposes an unnecessary question at the end of the sentence which means the listener doesn’t get any closure?
Annoying isn’t it.
Take it slowly. This is particularly important in interviews, when our nerves can get the better of us and increase the speed of our delivery. Take a deep breath before you answer the question. Pause for thought. Don’t be tempted to fill the silence with waffle if you’ve already made your point. Instead, wait for a reaction.
Pitch is also important. Margaret Thatcher famously saw a voice coach when she became an MP. We are hard-wired to tune into lower frequencies, which means that very high-pitched voices can come across as slightly hysterical. We’re more likely to trust a lower-pitched voice. Poor David Beckham.
5. Don’t use jargon. Tell stories
People use jargon when they want to prove that they know more about something than their audience does. It’s a very selfish way of communicating authority. What they’re saying is: “if you understand the complicated language I’m using, you’re as intelligent and knowledgeable as I am. If you don’t understand, you’re not one of us.”
Jargon is alienating. It creates distance between the speaker and the audience.
Storytelling is much more compelling than jargon. Conveying a message using personal anecdotes and examples helps the audience to create a mental picture and builds empathy.
If you’ve ever watched a TED talk, you’ll see the speakers communicate with passion and enthusiasm. They use simple terms and tell stories.
Dale Carnegie said “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
People want to be feel appreciated and the best way to demonstrate that is to really pay attention to what people say.
If you interrupt conversations you are sending a message that you’re not interested in what people are saying and that you think you’re more important than they are.
7. Be aware of your online presence
Access to social media profiles makes it very easy for people to form a judgment about you before you’ve ever met. Your reputation really does proceed you.
Your social media profile is your personal brand, so Google yourself and make sure you’re happy with the results.
Does your online brand reflect what you would like the world to think about you? Would you be happy for your future boss to see those photos that you happily made public on Facebook while out on the lash last summer?
Your online reputation is yours to shape, so take control of it.
Top tip for confidence
If you’re feeling nervous before a meeting, try this exercise in a private place: Stand with your big toes pressed firmly into the ground and stand with your shoulders back.
Lift your head up and smile.
Take several deep breaths.
Stand like this for a couple of minutes.
This Wonder Woman pose triggers a boost in testosterone and lowers cortisol, which is released when you’re stressed. You will be able to start your meeting feeling more focused and confident.
I delivered a presentation on ‘communicating with confidence’, to a roomful of professional fundraisers just after I became self-employed. It was the first time I’d done any training of this kind and I was terrified. I knew that if I showed my anxiety, I would make the audience feel uncomfortable and they would be distracted.
So I made a conscious decision to use all of these personal impact strategies. I stood with my big toes pressed into the ground and my shoulders back. I took a deep breath and smiled. I kept smiling throughout the presentation, and made eye contact with each of the delegates.
The effect was amazing. Not only did I feel more confident, but all around me there were smiling fundraisers listening intently – you could almost sense them willing me to succeed.
Ultimately, people will remember how you made them feel long after they’ve forgotten what you said.
Gravitas might be all that’s coming between you and the job of your dreams.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend Caroline Goyder’s excellent book Gravitas.