We’d all like to have a strong personal impact; yet it’s something that often seems to be outside our control.
Consider how quickly you form an impression of people when you first meet them. It’s probably no more than a few seconds before you get a sense of what they’re like – friendly, hostile, intelligent, dull, impatient, trustworthy and so on. There’s a considerable body of research demonstrating that we make judgements within a few seconds of meeting on people’s competence, likeability, trustworthiness and so on . And of course this is exactly what others are doing when they meet you. If your role involves meeting clients or customers, it probably translates into an almost instant decision on whether they like and want to do business with you.
The same research suggests that people are extremely unlikely to reverse their initial judgment. The subliminal cues are usually consistent and the process is repeated in every encounter, as both of you add to your mental pictures and develop expectations of intentions and capabilities. Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary – even hard data - it’s rare that we truly change our minds.
In terms of the work of Daniel Kahneman it’s because System 1 – the intuitive and unconscious processes by which we evaluate people and situations – routinely trumps System 2 – the more conscious and fact-based assessment. Perception is reality: in our estimation how other people seem is how they are. And impact and reputation are built on these perceptions as much as empirical achievement and track-record.
Probably much of the time your impact works for you. But what about the occasions when things don’t work so well and you’re not perceived the way you’d like? Perhaps you’d like to come across as more authoritative and capable? Maybe you’ve had feedback that you’re too assertive? Or not assertive enough? Or people see you as hesitant or overly-critical or too obliging or they think of you as someone who doesn’t listen? Or perhaps you have been pigeon-holed: a once-useful perception has become restrictive and your increased ability and wider potential is going unnoticed? It can be hard to change a reputation that once served you but is now holding you back.
Many of my clients want to shake up the way they are perceived and the impact they create. I regularly work with people who have achieved success through driving performance but are now ready to step up to become a senior leader, working through others. And many women routinely find themselves underestimated, particularly at senior levels. I deal more specifically with some of the challenges faced by women on another page of this site.
What I’m very good at, from my years as an actor and director, is pinpointing how impact is created - what’s contributing to System 1 perceptions - and identifying how it can be influenced. So a key part of my work involves offering feedback on what’s coming across, suggesting alternatives and providing direction and the opportunity to rehearse new ways of interacting in a risk-free environment.
It’s probably worth saying a few words about integrity here. Some of the elements that create impact are used by actors and many people think of acting as being fake or insincere. But professional actors know that acting is about telling the truth. If you think about what ‘bad acting’ means, it’s when you don’t believe something. And similarly if you try to fake something in your encounters with others, they are likely to sense the deception and this becomes part of your impact. So I don’t get my clients to act. Rather I help them cultivate the most persuasive and impactful but authentic version of themselves.
If you’d like to explore how you can develop your ability to make the personal impact you want, I’d be happy to help.
-  e.g. Naumann et al. 2009, Bernieri and Petty 2011, Willis & Todorov 2005