Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job, from which this is adapted. For more information, see KFAdvance.com.
When you think back to past interviews you’ve done, chances are the first few seconds of them don’t leave a lasting impression. Your mind was probably spinning, wondering if you said the person’s name right or if your palm came off as too sweaty in the handshake. You may have then been preparing your small-talk notes as you sat down to begin the interview.
By that time, though, a judgement has already been formed. It takes people only seven seconds to make a judgement about others. And during that very short time, an interviewer will make crucial determinations about you, including your likeability, your trustworthiness, how aggressive or passive you seem, and how well you would fit in with others on the team.
I know it seems completely unfair. But there is actually a science that explains the phenomenon. And while I won’t go into the nitty gritty of it all, it’s helpful to know that meeting people activates the part of the brain we use to assign value to people (and objects)—essentially split-second judgements of their importance to our social world.
Based on this initial determination, which is typically unconscious, your interviewer will decide (probably also unconsciously) whether to help you in the interview—by rephrasing questions, giving helpful feedback, assuring you with verbal and nonverbal cues—or to interrogate you. With so much riding on this all-important first impression, you can’t leave it to chance. You must prepare with verbal and nonverbal ways to make a lasting first impression:
Be on time. Perhaps the worst first thing that could come out of your mouth is, “I’m sorry I’m late.” Being punctual is a deal-or-no-deal situation. Arriving late is not only rude to those you’ve kept waiting, but it’s also highly unprofessional. If you’re late, you’re telling others that you are unreliable. Account for traffic and the unexpected. I once met a woman who was on time for an appointment, but a bit rattled. She later told me she was pulled over by a police officer for driving with expired license-plate tags. But because she planned ahead and left extremely early, even the highway encounter left her plenty of time to get to our meeting. (And she luckily only got off with a warning.)
Dress professionally. Too tight, too casual, too rumpled. We’ve seen it all, on both men and women. Granted, not every job interview requires a suit, but you still should present yourself as well-groomed and professional. Plan your outfit ahead of time. Try it on, iron it, choose your accessories. The last thing you want is a “wardrobe malfunction”—a hemline that’s not sewn in or a suit jacket that’s too tight to button. Then these things suddenly become all you can think about.
If you’re unsure if you should don a suit or just a blazer and jeans, ask your network what’s considered appropriate, along with doing your own research. It’s important to know the cultural fit. I’m reminded of the time a family member was interviewing for a job and asked me if she should remove her nose ring. She knew she had the right to be herself, which was a good point, but was concerned about making a good first impression. I told her to do her homework, and after she went online to the firm’s Facebook page, and called someone she knew at the company, she realized the nose ring would fit in perfectly with the culture. She got the job.
Don’t appear desperate. We’re all nervous when we go through interviews. But there’s a difference between being nervous and acting desperate. Sitting on the edge of your chair, or saying things like, “I really need this job,” can radiate desperation. That’s only going to raise doubts in the interviewer’s mind about your abilities, your fit with the organization, and why others haven’t hired you.
Your nonverbal cues may be unconscious. Perhaps you aren’t aware of how often you fold your arms tightly against your body (which can appear unfriendly) or that you frown when you listen. Record video of a mock interview, or use Korn Ferry’s interview prep app to see how you look and sound. Remember, actions sometimes speak louder than words. So make eye contact, maintain a good posture, and remember to smile. Conveying happiness and confidence makes others feel good about themselves.