Study: To Make a Good First Impression, Give Your Achievements a Backstory

Stay #relatable.

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The famous Will Rogers quote goes, “you’ll never get a second change to make a first impression,” so making it count all comes down to how and what you say, whether it’s a first date or a job interview. Thankfully, new research from City University of London offers some updated advice on why you don’t have to be an effortless superstar to win over someone you’ve only just met.

Talk About the Work You Did, Not Just Your Achievements

Science says you should talk about he unglamorous stuff more. Research published in September by professor Janina Steinmetz in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology shows that people tend to focus too much on their successes, rather than the effort it took to reach an achievement, when those listening actually want to hear more about effort.

The gap comes down to emphasizing competence versus relatability, as well as natural talent versus work ethic. Are you the hard-working underdog, or the all-star miracle worker?

We’re not wrong that making a good first impression puts people in a bind. In an unfair turn of events, people tend to value the results of talent more than hard work, an effect that has been documented by multiple papers. It’s not that people don’t like people who succeed through hard work — the science confirms this, too — but in making sure people value their work, the heightened value of talent-derived work may lead people to gloss over the work they put in, which leads to the gap Steinmetz identifies in the study.

Emphasizing success over the dinner table with your date may heighten their perception of you as a competent person, but you sacrifice warmth and relatability if you don’t talk about the effort it took to get there. And when asked about who they would prefer, 80 percent of participants in the research would rather have a second date with the hard worker than the natural talent.

The effect seemed to hold true across genders as well, although the spheres where success is defined differs. Steinmetz’s research took place solely in the Netherlands and the United States, but she anticipates that cultural differences may play an influential role.

What Can You Do?

Steinmetz recommends thinking of yourself abstractly if there’s a first impression you’re preparing for. We often give other people better advice than we give ourselves, so getting some distance can help.

Of course, we can’t be prepared for every first impression. In Steinmetz’s research, participants were instructed to make the best impression they could, and had time to think about it, so she suggests that the effect may be even more severe on a day-to-day basis, when we have far less preparation.

So when you’re trying to impress your date, you can talk about sweet moments of victory, but your story may fare even better if you pull back the curtain on your journey to get there.

“For example, if you’re on a date and talking about a marathon that you recently ran, perhaps talk about all the training that helped you to cross the finish line. Or, if you’re in a job interview and are talking about a successful project that you led to completion, include a few details about the challenges along the way, and how you overcame them,” Steinmetz advises.

People routinely engage in impression management, for example, by highlighting successes. It is not yet known how people attribute their success (to talent vs. effort) to give a positive impression. Three experiments explore this question and test whether people’s attributions of success receive favor from their audience. The findings show that, in impression management situations (e.g., job interview or date), people communicate their effort less than audiences would prefer. Thus, success alone may not be enough to make a positive impression on others; emphasizing effort as the cause for success also matters.
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