Judging a Book By Its Cover: William May’s Guide to Making a Killer First Impression

You never get a second chance at a first impression” – or so the old saying goes. But what exactly do others observe about us when we first meet them?

For many of us, our efforts towards impressing someone for the first time may only stretch as far as choosing a clean outfit and smiling, but how much attention should we really be paying to our appearance? Whether it’s a first date or a big job interview, William May are here to ensure that you make a killer first impression. In this unique guide, fashion and psychology experts give their opinion on everything from your jewellery to your facial expressions, and how to boost your chances of impressing immediately.

Why do first impressions matter so much?

It’s the same for so many of our biggest opportunities in life; we only get one shot. Whether it’s an interview for a dream job or a first date with someone you really like, if you fail to make a great impression then that chance can go out the window. No pressure.

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A 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, argued that there may be a certain element of truth to the age-old warnings that first impressions can’t be changed. The paper, published by a team of  University psychologists, suggested that first impressions have the strongest influence on our reactions to other people.

Lead author of the paper, Bertram Gawronski, commented on the findings at the time:

“Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your impression of that person is not very favourable. A few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realise he is actually a very nice guy. Although you know your first impression was wrong, your gut response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party. However, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts.”

The psychology of first impressions

How long do you think it takes you to make a judgment about another person? A couple of minutes of conversation? Or perhaps in the first few seconds after you are introduced? Most people would agree that it doesn’t take long but the truth is that it actually takes a lot less time than you may think.

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According to a study conducted by Princeton University in 2006, people will often come to judgments about others in as little as 100-ms. That’s just one tenth of a second.

Similar findings have since added more weight to this theory. In 2014, a study from the University of Glasgow showed that humans will make judgments on whether someone is trustworthy or not within the first 500 milliseconds of hearing their voice. That’s half a second after you say “hello”.

If it’s true that you have a miniscule amount of time to actually make a good impression on someone, and also true that our first impressions are so notoriously hard to change, then the way you present yourself if vital.

Research conducted by William May has revealed what we tend to notice about a person when meeting them for the first time, with interesting answers ranging from dress sense to the tone of their voice.

Using these findings, William May has spoken to the experts and put together the ultimate guide to making a fantastic first impression in those vital few hundred milliseconds; all the way from the smile on your face to the accessories you wear.

How to make a killer first impression

Facial expressions

The research revealed that people’s facial expressions were the most commonly selected trait, with 35% of those surveyed choosing this option. It was also the most highly rated factor for all those who were aged over 35, showing a certain generational difference in what people notice first.

Portia Hickey, psychologist and co-founder of Communication Labs, states that there are dozens of subtle signals that can portray the way you really feel:

“Whilst there are basic behaviours that help us make a good impression (e.g. smiling and steady eye-contact), studies also tell us that there is a lot more to first impressions. Our brain is bombarded with so much information all the time that shortcuts in our thinking are required. This means that subtle things such as how frequently we smile, what we wear, our accent, will cue people’s brains to stereotype us and make certain assumptions about us. So it is important to know what type of impression you want to make (e.g. empathetic, credible) so that you are sending the right signals to the other person’s brain.”

Some top tips for facial expressions…

  • Smiling – Naturally, smiling encourages happy and warm feelings between people, but remember that it is easy to spot a phony smile. Stay relaxed and try to convey your happy feelings through your eyes too; a smile that doesn’t reach your eyes can be rather disconcerting.
  • Tension – If you are tense or nervous then this will instantly show in your face, particularly in a job interview scenario. You may clench your jaw or look a little expressionless. Loosen your face beforehand by performing “warm-up exercises” like moving your lips and mouth and wiggling your cheeks to relax the muscles.
  • Emotions – Our most basic emotions are the ones that will show in our face, like anger, disgust, and even boredom. Keep yourself focused on what’s going on, although you may have to work hard to stop any negative feelings betraying you.

Dress sense

The way we dress was ranked as the second most noticeable factor, with 27% of people selecting fashion as the first thing they spot.

Interestingly enough, dress sense was shown to be the most important factor for the youngest participants; more than one in three of those aged between 18 and 24 rated it as the first thing they notice about another person.

The way that we dress and accessorise is such a huge part of our lives. Clothes are no longer a way to just keep us warm. Through different styles and accessories such as jewellery and watches we are, in many ways, showing the world who we are as individuals, showcasing our personality in a completely unique way.

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Ivana Franekova, life coach and cognitive behavioural therapist at Confidence Coaching, provides some insight into what our clothes say about us:

“We all have certain styles we are comfortable with; each of us has a favourite colour, a top we simply love or a jacket that we just had to have. When we put an outfit together in the morning, we do so with a view to communicate a message with that outfit. Tried and trusted outfits make us feel safe and secure; bold, new outfits give us confidence and courage to try new things that day.

“It’s the same with accessories. We see them in all shapes and sizes around us; some people keep them to the minimum whilst others over-accessorise, as if to hide behind them or apologise for something. If you over-accessorise or choose unsuitable items, it could be a sign you’re trying to divert attention away from yourself. Whilst wearing loads of accessories can convey confidence, it actually may mask low self-esteem.”

Our clothes and accessories can clearly say a great deal about us. As soon as they look at us, other people can make immediate snap judgements about us based entirely on what we are wearing. For example, in a work environment, someone dressed in a tailor-made suit with an expensive watch is more likely to be rated as successful, confident, and as being a strong influence in the company.

Nick Withington, Managing Director of William May, believes there is one element of our appearance that can often be overlooked…

“For many people, one of the first accessories they will notice will be your watch – as you will often shake hands with the person you are meeting! They are no longer solely used to tell the time; a timepiece can be a statement about your personal sense of style. A high-tech smartwatch can show you are a modern man with a penchant for the latest technology, whilst a vintage watch can show you are a classic soul who appreciates quality and value.

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“It’s important to convey a strong first impression with your watch – it isn’t something to be ignored! Be sure to wear an adult style, and nothing made of rubber unless you’re heading out on a run. Keep it professional, clean and neat and you’ll leave them with only good thoughts.”

Body language and posture

The way that we stand and hold ourselves was the third most commonly selected feature, but only just trailing behind dress sense with 26.7% of the vote. And just like our clothes, our body language can convey our mood, our inner feelings and our intentions for the meeting or conversation.

If you are trying to appear friendly and confident, then there are naturally some moves that you should avoid. Crossing your arms is one as it can make you look closed-in and defensive, whereas fidgeting with objects or hair, or biting your nails can show anxiety or nerves. It can take a lot to control our body language, but it’s really all about learning to identify how we act in certain situations.

Ivana specialises in helping people feel, and come across as, more confident by changing their body language:

“No one trusts a shifty-looking, hunched-over person who doesn’t know what to do with their hands and can’t sit still. There are people who simply will not look into someone’s eyes when having a conversation. When you shake their hands, their limp hands convey no trust in them and puts people on alert mode instantly.

Confidence is extremely important when meeting someone for the first time, but you are likely to be much better perceived if you smile at the other person with genuine warmth, rather than producing an overly-firm handshake. A quiet confidence presents a competent and self-assured person. Loud, brash confidence is nothing but a mask of inner insecurities. Understandably, your body language would be very different in a professional environment to a dating situation, so it’s very important to think about where you are beforehand and choose the best posture/presentation for it. When in conversation, your body language is being constantly interpreted by the other person on both conscious and subconscious levels, so being aware of how you present yourself to others is an extremely important skill.”


Ivana’s top tips on body confidence…

  • Start taking notice“If you have not been aware of your body language and what yours tells those around you before, start from today. Notice how you carry yourself, what you do with your hands and how you stand, how much personal space is between you and the other person. Start with those you feel close to and build up your confidence.”
  • Fake it till you make it“Be aware of your body language; stand tall with your head up. Let your body mirror the other person whilst keeping a healthy distance between you. Maintain eye contact and smile. It’s absolutely normal to feel nervous at times but it doesn’t need to show.”


And last, but by no means the least, was our voice, which 10% of respondents selected as the feature they notice first in another person. Whilst it wasn’t the most popular, it may be that a person’s voice has a much more subtle effect on our perceptions of others than we initially think.

The aforementioned studies conducted by psychologists from the University of Glasgow and Princeton University highlighted how important the way we speak can be to forming first impressions. Through their research, they discovered that the tone of voice when greeting someone had a direct and immediate impact on the other person’s judgment. It seems there is certainly some truth to the famous quote “you had me at hello”.


Portia describes how minute changes in our voice can change people’s perceptions:

“Our tone of voice is powerful in the impression we make. It often leads people to make assumptions about our capability and personality. Studies have shown that tone of voice is highly correlated with perceptions of leadership competence. Duke University found that CEOs with deeper voices ran bigger companies. The deeper the voice, the more likely someone is perceived to have gravitas, which is often associated with strong leadership. People need to think about what impression they want to make, a warmer tone can help people to see you as a warm person but that might not always be the impression you want to make.”

It’s impossible to control what people think of you, but there is still plenty you can do to help shape their initial perception of you into one that is both positive and endearing. Consider the situation you are in, and the type of impression you want to make. For a job interview you want to appear competent and confident; for a date it may be warm and friendly; whereas if you’re giving a speech or lecture it could be knowledgeable and respectful.

All of these can be portrayed in the way you dress, hold yourself and speak, so make sure you do your preparation using our handy guide, and you’ll be sure to put your best foot forward.

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