Say you have a big pitch coming up. You make an impressive agenda, put together a killer deck, and practice answering hard questions. But there’s a problem.
This is all focused on the middle and end of your pitch, and it skips over the most important part: the first two seconds.And if you don’t nail those, guess what? Your hard work is irrelevant.
Here’s why: In 1992, researchers Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, then at Harvard, found that our first impressions are essential for our success. In their experiment, they asked students to rate two-second video clips of professors teaching.
Then they took these ratings and compared them with that same professor’s student evaluations after an entire semester of teaching.
The result: Teachers who got low video-clip ratings also got poor student evaluations. And teachers who got strong ratings on their video clips also received the best student evaluations.
Consider that. Teachers were judged the same, whether it was based on a two-second clip or dozens of hours of teaching. And here’s the kicker: The two-second video clips were muted! That means the students watching the videos were judging based on body language alone.
Ambady and Rosenthal call this behavior “thin-slicing.” They argue that we make quick judgments—or thin slices—of people we meet, and rarely change them. This isn’t just important for teachers. Multiple studies have found thin-slicing happens in dating, parenting, and looking at social media profiles. The lesson is clear: If we don’t nail our first impression, all our hard preparation is wasted. But you can turn that to your advantage—because to win over a crowd, you only have to supercharge the first two seconds! Here’s how.
Step #1: The grand entrance.
We like to think that we make our first impression once we start talking—and it’s why we spend so much effort on openers and introductions. Unfortunately, your first impression happens the moment someone first sees you. How you take the stage and how you enter a room is just as important as your opening line.
Make sure you are overprepared. Have you controlled your environment before your pitch starts? Are your slides set up? Your microphone tested? Your bags stashed away? Your first two seconds shouldn’t be spent fumbling with any of that. When you take the stage, walk into a boardroom, or enter a classroom, do it with purpose and a smile.
If you have to wait for your audience to file in, be sure you’re not checking your cell phone, distributing handouts, or frantically reviewing slides. Instead, take a seat up front and greet people individually as they come in.
Step #2: Own your content.
The best teachers show that they are confident about their material and happy to be presenting it to you. In those first two seconds, you want to do the same. Prepare an enthusiastic opening line—not so much because the words matter, but because when you know what you’re saying, you can really focus on the delivery. Show passion and true excitement. That’s what’s memorable.
Once you’re past two seconds, make eye contact with each person in the room so they feel you’re speaking right to them. You can do this easily in small boardrooms or classrooms, of course. But you can also do it if you have a large auditorium; just make a figure eight in the room, like in the illustration shown at left. Hit each corner, with a pause in the middle. You can restart this figure eight every few minutes as you pitch.
Once you’ve done all that, relax: Your audience has thin-sliced you, and that slice contains nothing but great things. Now it’s time to make that first impression pay off.