The First Seven Seconds

Roger Ailes is the President of Fox News,  a former media consultant for three American Presidents and author of the best-selling You Are the Message. The first chapter of that book, entitled “The First Seven Seconds”, focuses on the importance of first impressions.

First seven seconds

In article that appeared in SUCCESS Magazine, Ailes wrote the following:

You’ve got just seven seconds to make the right first impression. As soon as you make your entrance, you broadcast verbal and non-verbal signals that determine how others see you. In business, those crucial first seven seconds can decide whether you will win that new account, get financing or succeed in a tense negotiation.

Are you confident? Comfortable? Sincere? Glad to be there? In the first seven seconds, you shower your audience with subtle “cues.” And whether people realize it or not, they respond immediately to your facial expressions, gestures, stance and energy. They react to your voice—the tone and pitch.  Audiences, whether one or one hundred, instinctively size up your motives and attitudes.

I don’t know whether there is any magic in seven seconds (as opposed to 10 seconds or 30 seconds or one minute). But there is no disputing Ailes’ conviction about the importance of first impressions. And you don’t have much time.

As speakers, what can we do to ensure that we make our first impression on our audience the right one?

7 tips for those 7 seconds

  • Dress appropriately. There is no need to distract your audience by not being well groomed and properly attired. A good rule of thumb is to dress as well as, or slightly better than, your audience.
  • Set up the venue. As speakers, we rarely get to choose where we speak and often the location is not optimal. All the more reason for us to arrive early and ensure that things set up in a way that gives us the best chance of connecting with the audience. Check the speaking area to ensure it is free from obstruction (e.g. electrical cords over which we can stumble). Adjust the lighting (electric and natural) so you can be seen. Check the sound system to make sure that you can be heard. Move the lectern to one side if you do not need to use it. Make sure that chairs for the audience are arranged properly.
  • Prepare your introduction. If someone is going to introduce you, make their job easy and a craft a succinct but compelling introduction for yourself. And if your name is difficult to pronounce, meet with your introducer to make sure that he says it correctly.
  • If you need to use notes, place them on the lectern beforehand. Walking on stage with notes in your hand does not convey the same message as walking on stage with both hands free.
  • Walk confidently when called to the stage. Confidence is contagious. If you shuffle up  and look at the floor, you send the wrong signal to the audience. Keep your head up, your shoulders back and walk with purpose to shake the hand of the person who has just introduced you.
  • Have a solid opening. Your opening words are very important. They should convey both confidence and genuine warmth for the audience. Plan your opening carefully and be able to deliver it without notes. Speak in a loud and clear voice.
  • Smile. I have written previously about the importance of smiling. When you smile at your audience, you let the people know that you are happy to be there and fully engaged. Try it and you will notice the smiles that you get in return.

Following these tips will help make the audience’s first impression of you a favourable one. And that’s important. Remember the old saying: “You only get one opportunity to make a good first impression.”

Photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds

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  1. John, I love this post. Every aspect of a speech/presentation is important, I know you’ll agree, but man, if you don’t get the beginning/first impression right, you’re swimming upstream.
    Thanks as always!

  2. Seven seconds John? Patricia Fripp talks about the first thirty seconds but it looks as though we have even less time than that. I’m a come out punching speaker but I know that there is a school of thought that goes against that idea. Guess from this post that we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

    1. Like I said in the post, Keith, I don’t think that there is any more magic in 7 seconds than there is in 30 seconds, but I do believe very much in the importance of first impressions. I think that was a speaker wants to convey in those opening moments is that he is professional, prepared and engaged. Some speakers like to “come out punching” as you put it; others prefer to start on a more subtle note and build from there. I think that either approach can be effective. But the tips in the post – proper dress, prepared opening, confident walk, smile, etc. – apply to any type of opening style.

  3. Good post. The First Seven Seconds were worth pondering deeper. So to speak, your pen urged me to awaken and to look at myself more attentively. Thank you. I didn’t delay to prepare my introduction. Is it not the recognition of myself in others? If each one of my audience will ask so himself, I am strongly convinced that the smile will be the inescapable outcome then. I think that public speaking skills characterize the speaker’s spirituality. I think that such mindset will overcome any obstacles on any stage.

  4. Kimberley Elsbach, a professor at University of California and expert in reputation (research in Hollywood movie studios and how writer’s present their ideas to movie studios), identifies 7 stereotypes that we use to judge people and whether to take them seriously. You have about 7 seconds before your audience’s unconscious has already put you in one of these 7 boxes … and only 3 are positive (i.e., they might buy from you).

    1. Conor,
      Thanks for the comment and for directing us to Elsbach’s work. It gives one pause to think that people can slot us into a pre-defined group so quickly; and yet, first impressions are so often right. This was the thesis of a brilliant book by Malcolm Gladwell, Blink.

  5. 7 seconds seems like a tough goal to meet. Is there a curve, meaning if you speak for a total of 7 minutes you have 1 minute for the intro or an hour you have ten? Also, to help reduce fear, do you feel that the introduction should follow very specific guidelines to help not only gain attention but to organize thoughts during a period where nerves sometimes get the best of you? Seven seconds seems really short … just a thought.

    1. Erica, thanks very much for the comment and the question. I agree with you that seven seconds is a short time. In the post, I did say, “I don’t know whether there is any magic in seven seconds (as opposed to 10 seconds or 30 seconds or one minute). But there is no disputing Ailes’ conviction about the importance of first impressions. And you don’t have much time.” I think that is the key point – that there is not much time to grab your audience’s attention.
      I don’t believe that there is a “curve” as you put it. My sense is that regardless whether your speech is 45 minutes or 10 minutes, if your first 2 or 3 minutes are boring, you will start to lose your audience.
      Your question about introductions as a way to organize your thoughts as well as gain attention is interesting. I think that the introduction should be crafted so as to be a compelling hook that makes your audience want to hear more about the subject. There are different ways to do so and I touch on them in this post:
      I also believe that one’s thoughts should be organized beforehand. You should know your introduction cold to get you off to a good start. If you are concerned about losing your train of thought, you can have notes in support. Here are some ideas regarding the use of notes:
      To calm your nerves, I recommend the following: (1) thorough preparation; (2) arrive early to ensure all is in order and also to meet and chat with some of the people who will be in the audience; (3) avoid caffeine and alcohol; (4) stay well hydrated; (5) if you can, find a quiet place to warm up with deep breathing, swinging your arms to get the blood flowing, etc.; and (6) eat a banana 30 minutes or so before you speak.
      I hope that you find some of this helpful.

    1. I believe that both are important. There is debate over whether there is such a thing as a visual learner or an auditory learner, but I think both are important. Each can be effective in conveying information and sometimes one is better for the job than another. I don’t care if someone is an auditory learner – if I want to talk about the proposed site for the construction of a factory, I am going to use pictures of the property and architectural plans of the proposed building. They will be much more effective than me trying to describe the scene.

      1. Thank you for responding. I do not suffer from anxiety myself, but I am very curious as to why so many people do. We speak everyday in groups and one on one, yet there is so much fear around speaking. Is it due to the fact that we tell people the stats, and we hear it’s the biggest fear in the US too much? If we did not spotlight the fact that so many do fear it would that reduce it? Does a public speaking class really help reduce fear or do we just learn to cope but still feel the same inside after the course is over. It is a very interesting topic with little answers I guess.

        1. I believe that there are a number of factors involved, including the ones that you mention. When we speak one-on-one, the conversation is back and forth. We can adjust what we are saying based on the feedback that we get from the other person. When speaking on a stage, the conversation is mostly one way. We do get some feedback from an audience (laughter, nods, smiles, yawns, frowns, etc.) but it is not the same thing. So we can never be sure what they are thinking.
          As for nerves, for most people (myself included) they never go away completely. I think this is a good thing. It keeps your adrenalin and energy up. Of course there is a balance. If the nerves are too great, you can fall apart. The trick is to harness that nervous energy and channel it in the right direction.

  6. Hi there Mr. Zimmer,
    I’m preparing the upcoming issue of our TM Area Newsletter and, as I mentioned in Poznan, we’d love to have you in it. I thought this post would be great for it, although it’s a bit too long for the largest spot we have which fits about 450 words. I was thinking we could use it starting from “As speakers, what can we do to ensure…”, although I’m not sure whether you’d like a more impactful introduction for it (a lot shorter than the one on the post, though). What do you think? Is this ok with you or would it be better to use another one of your articles (on preparation)?
    Thanks in advance and see you in Bonn!

    1. Hi Seb,
      Thanks very much for the comment. Of course, you are welcome to use the article. And, you can shorten it as you see fit. If you are concerned that the shortened article won’t have as much of an impact, you can always direct them to the blog for the full post.
      Hope this is helpful. I look forward to reading the newsletter.

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