Hanging on the wall of one corporate personnel waiting room is a full-length mirror with a sign asking, "Would you hire this person?"
An intimidating prank?
Not necessarily so. Recent research suggests that a brief glance in a mirror provides only a little less "data" than what many employers use to decide whether or not to hire an applicant.
"They tend to base their decisions primarily on first impressions, not on re'sume's or credentials," says Janet G. Elsea, author of The Four-Minute Sell: How to Make a Dynamic First Impression (Simon and Schuster, $12.95). "Usually they make up their minds within the first five minutes of meeting you."
Elsea, president of the Washington-based consulting firm Communications Skills Inc., says most of us know intuitively that appearance, body language, tone of voice and choice of words are critical to making a good first impression. But many promising careers are sidetracked, promotions lost and business relationships damaged, she says, because people don't know how to use good communications strategies.
"The fortune cookie is right," says Elsea. "You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression." And what the fortune cookie doesn't tell you: in first encounters, you get only two to four minutes to make an impression.
"Studies show that people immediately focus on what they can see -- age, gender, color of skin, appearance, facial expressions, eye contact, even posture," says Elsea, a former professor of speech communications at Arizona State University who dropped her academic image seven years ago to develop the groomed look of an amiable -- but serious -- businesswoman. "A number of experts believe what you look like constitutes more than half the total message of a first impression."
Next, people focus on what they hear. Our speaking voices -- rate, loudness, pitch, tone and articulation -- give additional clues to our personalities.
"The voice alone -- not the words -- conveys as much as 38 percent of the meaning in face-to-face interactions," claims Elsea. "Nonverbal and vocal communications constitute more that 90 percent of the message during the first moments."
Last and least important is what you say. If people can't get past your visual and auditory impression, they're not going to listen to your words.
In a world where packaging often supercedes content, Elsea says she is "amazed" by the number of intelligent people who have their thoughts in order but don't have a clue as to what they look or sound like.
"I want people to be able to answer key questions about themselves," she says. "What does my face say when I'm disturbed? What do I look like from behind? What does my voice sound like when I'm nervous? What kind of language do I use? Making good first impressions is a matter of raising our consciousness about ourselves."
In workshops with clients such as Honeywell, the World Bank and the Smithsonian Institution, Elsea regularly videotapes sessions to familiarize people with themselves. It can be a tough lesson.
* One workshop participant, she recalls, stood up with hands on his hips and declared in a stern voice: "I don't believe my words are so unimportant. People just have to listen to what I say and take me for what I am."
Says Elsea, "I did. I took him to be an angry, threatened individual and moved on to another person's question."
Her message: Modify your behavior to tailor the first impression you want to make. A few of her pointers:
* Look at yourself on film or videotape, moving, gesturing, interacting with others. Candid photographs of yourself in action are next best. As a last resort, study yourself in a full-length mirror. What looks good, and why? Clothes? Weight? Hair style? What looks bad? Change it.
* Remember that your face is the most controllable nonverbal cue, and also the one people rely on to gauge your attitude. Smiling and head-nodding are the most powerful nonverbal cues. A blank expression ranks lowest in attractiveness and credibility.
* Record your voice in a conversation. Does it zip along too rapidly, or is it slow and monotonous? Count your words per minute (the average rate is 130 to 160 words per minute) and vary your speed. Try talking a little faster (160 to 200 words per minute), which is regarded as intelligent and convincing.
* Choose the name you use according to the kind of first impression you want to make. Formal names like James or Janet suggest conscientiousness and emotional stability, but less extroversion than familiar names like Jim or Jan, or adolescent ones like Jimmy and Jannie.
"Preparation and practice is the key in making the new behaviors you choose part of your automatic response system," says Elsea. "And a valuable fringe benefit is that you'll read other people better." Know Thyself
What are my talents? How can I use them? The Northern Virginia Information and Counseling Center for Women has scheduled a 10-week "New Focus" workshop to help professional women answer such questions. The first five weeks will be self-assessment; the second five, career preparation and job-search strategies. Starts Tuesday, 9:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. $60. (703) 281-2657.