5 Minutes to Create an Impression?  How About 5 Seconds? header image

5 Minutes to Create an Impression? How About 5 Seconds?

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We’ve all been told how quickly our presentation audiences form impressions of a presenter. Some say 2-minutes. Some 5-minutes.  Whatever the precise number, we can generally agree on one thing – finding our stride 10 or 15-minutes into a presentation is a bit late. And when we dive into the research, we begin to understand how sticky (and amazingly accurate)  those “snap judgements” can be.

Years back psychologist Nalini Ambady at Stanford wanted to test the accuracy of initial impressions – snap judgments.  The outcome of her research was so startling, it was featured in Malcom Gladwell’s national best selling book, Blink.

Here’s what she did and why you should care.

To test those “first impressions” Ambady got together a group of incoming freshman college students.  She showed them three, 10-second videos of three professors they would encounter and with the sound turned off, she asked them to rate each of the three on their impression of the teacher’s “effectiveness”.  They had never met these professors but with a high degree of correlation, most students selected the same professor. The exercise was repeated many times during the day with the same outcomes.

Ambady then showed a second group of students the same three professors, this time only providing them with 5-seconds of video without sound and asked them to once again rate the professors on their suspected effectiveness.  Surprisingly, both groups were remarkably consistent in their selection.

These students were obviously picking up on some very powerful non-verbal communication that incurred in just a few seconds! 

If the experiment ended here, this might just be another interesting research project that was strangely compelling but it got even crazier. The larger question then became, did it actually turn out that way?

At the end of the semester, evaluations were solicited for all the professors and the ones for the three study professors pulled aside. It seems the one professor that had an overall evaluation better than the other two was the teacher selected at the beginning of the year based on 10 and 5 second impressions.

As presenters, there’s no way to avoid the implications for us.  What does the first 10 seconds tell your audiences?  Excited?  Anxious?  Present?  Preoccupied?

It would seem that your audiences are not forming initial impressions of you in the first 5-6 minutes of a presentation – they’re being formed in the first 5-10 seconds and their instincts are generally true.

So what were the students picking up on?

Because those initial impressions were formed without the benefit of actually hearing the professors, we can only come to one conclusion – the amazing influence of non-verbal communication.  Mehrabian had it right in the 60s.   Although the raw content of our messages is important, HOW we communicate them seems to carry significantly more weight than we had ever imagined.  And when you consider that most presenters today spend all their prep time on what they are going to say vs. how they are going to say it – we have a big problem.

Here’s what I suspect those students were picking up on and why you need to invert your preparation plan to spent much more time on presentation delivery.


Personal Warmth
If you were to watch a video of yourself (without audio), would you see personal warmth and humanity or stoic determination?  For most presenters, the answer is the latter.  As they spin up the left side of their brain to try to “load” up what they’re going to say- the relational right side usually takes the morning off.   The result?  Presenters who look like they are intense, upset or indifferent at best.  And the sad part – they don’t even know it until they see themselves on video tape.


Eye Contact
The art of presenting will always be, first and foremost a relational skill – not a technical one. If you’ve ever tried having a disagreement with a friend or spouse and spent all your time looking at the floor or ceiling, you already know how that went. “Look at me when you’re talking to me!”  And that’s how we’re wired. We want a presenter to actually look at us.  Not around us.  Not at our foreheads.  Not throwing an indiscriminate glance our direction every 10-minutes – actually look at us and establish a very real personal connection.

Comfortable relaxed movement
Nervous presenters create nervous audiences.  If you are comfortable and know your place in front of a room, then it will show in your ease of movement and the effortlessness of your gestures.  This is why over the years I’ve noticed those who have had a music or performing arts background seem to start stronger. They have already come to terms with being at the center of attention and they’re ok with that.

Dress and appearance
Appropriate?  Comfortable?

I hope the implications of this research sinking in.

If so, it will change forever how we view the first moments of an important presentation. It means people are watching before the presentation begins. Also, we must be masters of the 1st minute to establish relationship, warmth and topic relevance.

Limited time to practice?  Invest in the first 5-minutes and the last 5-minutes. Those are the moments that most influence an audience’s presentation experience.

So what would someone’s first 10 second impression of your next big presentation tell them?