How to make or break your first impression

In my workshops, attendees often talk about how they'd like to make better first impressions.

Most of us think we subscribe to the concept that we judge people based on knowing them for an extended period of time. The reality is often another story. Back in my acting days, we worked on our monologues for auditions tirelessly.  But what we ALSO worked on:

  • How we walked into a room (confident, but friendly)
  • How we said our name (declarative, without an up inflection - like a question)
  • Making eye contact with the auditors and smiling when first entering the audition room
  • Rehearsing saying the name of the piece we’d be performing as well as the author and character in a clear, confident way

So why on earth would we focus all this attention on what seems like innocuous behavior? Because first impressions can make or break your ability to get the job. First impressions carry a lot of weight, and whether you’re auditioning for a role, interviewing for a job, networking, building your business, or looking for a date, the way people perceive you has everything to do with your ability to get what you’re seeking.

Spend time working on making a positive, friendly connection with potential clients, employers…as many people as you can because you never know how they might be able to help you out.

Yes, sometimes it’s a real effort. We all have bad days when we’re cranky. The effort you put into making a good first impression will pay off.  Sure, be clear about your subject matter—practice speaking out loud your pitch, or your work history—but remember to pay attention to how you first connect with people. They won’t forget it.

Avoid the dreaded monotone

We all have the ability to hit within three full octaves of notes when we’re speaking, but a lot of times, we hit just one or two. This can result in your voice being monotone where you hit just one note the whole time—which can put your audience to sleep. If you listen to announcers on radio or TV, you’ll notice that they’re hitting different notes when they speak to give variety to their delivery, which makes it easier to understand what they’re saying.

Borrow this technique when you’re speaking—try hitting different notes.  At first, it’ll feel awkward—partly because you’re focusing on something new, but as you get more comfortable with your new vocal range, you’ll start to incorporate hitting different pitches based on what you’re saying. 

If you’re around young kids, practice playing all the parts when you’re reading them stories. They’ll love it, and you’ll get a chance to see all of the places your voice can vocally go.

Another way to practice vocal variety is to get a book (that you want to read), download the audio book and read along with the voice over actor, modeling your voice on theirs as they raise and lower their pitch. Then, put the audio on pause and read on your own for a few minutes, recording yourself each day to track your progress.

Use these tricks to avoid the dreaded monotone delivery and keep your audience engaged.

Ditch the Critic!

We’ve all got it—that critical committee in our head that’s commenting on our delivery WHILE we’re speaking to a group—saying things like “That was a stupid thing to say,” and “Wow, you really blew THAT one,” and “You are so terrible at this—everyone is bored out of their minds."

These voices can sometimes be helpful and keep us from saying inappropriate things in our daily lives, but it’s NOT helpful when we’re speaking to a group.

What can you do about it?

Send the committee out of the room. When you’re doing run-throughs, practice seeing them leave the room and go out the door. When it’s time to deliver your talk, find the closest exit and visualize them leaving the room.

With the critical committee gone, you’ll be able to worry less, and focus on what’s most important—sharing your ideas with your audience.

How you tell your story—is the story

In job interviews or in everyday conversation, do you freeze up when you start to talk about your yourself? Do you have a hard time figuring out what to tell and what to leave out? What about the things you did that didn’t really turn out exactly as you’d planned? And most important in job interviews, how do you talk about jobs that you absolutely hated?

The good news is that as the storyteller, you have the ability to craft your story. This isn’t to say that you should lie or in any way misrepresent yourself. Don’t. It will come back to bite you. But if you had a job that you absolutely hated, the one thing that you CAN say is what you learned from it. Whatever it was about it that you didn’t like, it more than likely made you wiser than when you started. Give it a positive spin--going negative in a job interview is a big turn off for employers. Think about it, would YOU want to be around someone who complains all the time?

Focus on talking about what you really love and are passionate about. This is the same advice I give to my workshop attendees. When you speak from a place of passion, your audience picks up on that and you rise above the other interviewees.  Being able to communicate your desire and showing a willingness to learn more and build on what you already know is a great place to start.

The one thing that I cannot recommend highly enough, is to spend a decent chunk of time looking at and writing out your personal history. Yes, it’s jobs that you’ve had, and school you’ve attended--but don’t forget to think about the things that you do that you might regularly gloss over--hobbies, family history, hometown and travel. These are important elements that reveal who you are and what makes you unique.

Once you’ve written down your personal history, and included all of the things you’ve done and are good at (paid or not), think about a way to tell your story that emphasizes your strengths that will give a brief history of what brought you to where you are today.

Practice telling the story out loud. This is where people often drop the ball. Converting your thoughts into language is a process that takes practice. Yes, it feels a bit ridiculous, but don't skip this important step. Time yourself. Have a five-minute version ready. Then, a two and a one-minute version. Obviously, you can’t tell everything, but you can hand pick the important elements that are relevant and that brought you to where you are today.

How you tell your story--after you’ve respected the contents enough to commit it to paper, stripped away the inessential, and polished it with enough rehearsal to let the natural passion shine through—IS the story.

My Public Speaking Origin Story: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Being a New Wave Lead Singer

In the '80s, I was in a new wave band in Nashville called “Modern Emotions.” We had only been together for six weeks when we got our first gig.  Well, OK, it was a Halloween party in someone’s basement, but there were going to be a TON of people there, and that constituted a gig for us.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of any audience EVER.

My friend Barry Nelson, gave me advice when I revealed that I was a little concerned I would forget my newly learned lyrics:

“If you forget your lyrics, just sing numbers and letters--no one will know the difference.”

Barry’s advice was good (listen to REM’s Murmur and tell me if you understand ANY lyric on that), but I had another plan.  I had a notebook with my lyrics written in large print in it, and I’d position it so I could glance at it if my memory failed.  We did the sound check and it worked.  Whew!  Now I could relax and focus on my eyeliner.

The crowd started to gather--and they’d crowded a lot of people in that basement. I ran down my new wave checklist: pink tuxedo shirt, check. Black thrift store jacket, check. Hair & Makeup, check & check. Killer ascot, check and mate.

As we walked out to the band riser, I saw that someone had taken the extra step of putting dry ice in buckets all around the stage, and my carefully placed notebook had vanished in the moody fog.

The band starts up--Chuck Orr on his drums, Skot Nelson begins to tickle the synth ivories, Jennifer Thompson gets going on the guitar, and…I struggle to remember what the hell I’m supposed to sing.

“Three.  F. Eighty Eight. Two. Ninety Nine. Ninety Nine.”

I remembered some of the choruses, but most of what I sang was numbers and letters.  Thankfully, we only knew six songs, so it DID have an end point.  Once we finished the last note, I slinked off the stage in shame, feeling like I’d made a huge fool out myself. I was devastated that I had sabotaged our DEBUT performance! I burst into tears once in the cocoon of my enclosed car – a 1974 AMC Hornet.

A few minutes later, Mary (of Mary K. and the Cosmetics) knocked on the window and came in to console me (with her pet boa constrictor no less): “Honey, don’t you worry about it at all – nobody noticed anything, y’all were great!” I was convinced she was just being nice.

Oh well, at least it was over.

Five minutes later, Jennifer knocked on the car window and said, “You ready for our second set?”

“What? Second set! No one told me we were going to do a second set!”

Semi-shell shocked, with Mary K.’s support, I got up out of that car, went in thinking, “well, it certainly can’t be any worse that the first set!” This time, I held my notebook in my arms and…it actually went well! I had been through the worst the first set, so after that, I threw caution to the wind, and we ended up rocking the party and having a small local following afterwards!

A mantra that I have referred to often after experiencing a similar situation as an actor forgetting my lines:  

Well, I didn’t die.  

Kind of puts things in perspective.

When prepping for a presentation, Rehearse. A lot. Out loud. In front of other people. Know what you are going to say. Expect the fog to obliterate your notes and be prepared. The more you rehearse, the better you’ll be.

*Note - the picture above is from Young Grey Ruins, a subsequent Nashville band I was in. You can listen us here.

Who cares?

When preparing your presentation, don’t forget to tune into the audience’s wavelength, WII-FM, what’s in it for me.  If the audience feels that you are tuned into what they care about, they will give you their undivided attention.

An example of tuning into the wavelength of an audience is Cicero.  Writer, John D’Agata, provides an example of this: “No one in the ancient world did this better than Cicero.  He didn’t exactly invent [it], he perfected it instead.  An anonymous biographer describes for us in a second-century fragment the afternoon in 44 B.C. during which Cicero spoke to an audience of “over ten thousand men” for “three and a half hours” as they stood in wool tunics in the August Italian sun.  There are some who even believe that the long contentious transition between the Republic and Empire wouldn’t even have occurred if Cicero hadn’t been around to stall the city’s history.  He was that good.”

When preparing your talk or presentation, remember to ask what is in it for your audience, what do they care about? It could be cost, time, “that IT guy” or exposing plots to overthrow the Roman government.

When preparing your talk, remember these questions. 

What is the problem?  

What is your solution?

The difference between talking and public speaking

When speaking publicly, most people find it difficult to take pauses. As the person getting the focus of the entire room, taking a pause can initially feel awkward. It feels to you as if a Mack truck could drive through any pause you take.

Many of us feel that if we’re not speaking every second, the audience will get bored and tune out.

The ironic thing is—taking your time and using pauses will give the impression that you really ARE the expert—as you’re not worried about trying to prove it to anyone.

So, take a breath, pause and truly engage with your audience, making eye contact to see if they’ve received your message. Imagine that there’s a thought bubble that appears after each major thought that asks: “Did you get that?”

This is your time—be wise with how you shape it. Connect authentically. Give your audience time to process what you’re saying—they’ll be thankful.

My #1 Tip for Public Speaking

When you’re presenting in front of a group, you want to do your best. There are a lot of things you can do to prepare, but I advise you to remember to remember one thing: “Be prepared, not perfect.” Think about it. When you’re talking to friends, do you focus on being “perfect”? The pressure you put on yourself for perfection can be like a vice grip, and you end up coming across as stiff, impersonal, and dull as dishwater. So prepare as best you can, do lots of run throughs, and cut yourself some slack. Try to have a sense of humor, and expect a stumble here and there. You’ll be more relaxed and hopefully, more of ‘you’ will show up.

Find Your Public Speaking Partner

The single best way to improve as a public speaker is to practice.  And while technology makes reviewing yourself easy, the best way to practice public speaking is to get a partner. 

Find a partner

Email an acquaintance or colleague, letting them know you are looking for a short-term public speaking partner for a month or two, and that you’d like to meet for thirty minutes every week.  Decide on a goal - it could be to give a presentation or a talk at your company, host a meet-up or prep for an interview. Clearly defining the goal and setting end dates will help you stick to your plan.

Find a space

Book a conference room large enough for about 8 – 12 people so that you can practice using enough volume (the bigger, the better). If you can use the space that corresponds with your final speaking goal (giving a talk at work), all the better.


Start with an autobiographical story. It could be your first job, your first car, your first apartment, your first day in school, you decide.  Run through it out loud at least 3 times before you meet so that you’ve translated what’s in your head to language.  See previous blog post on CAR to structure the story of your talk.

Initial Run-Through

 Try to keep your weight evenly on both feet to avoid swaying back and forth. If you decide to move, move with purpose, coming to a stop when you end a thought. Feel free to use the same gestures you use in everyday conversation.

 Eye contact is key when speaking to groups. Besides your partner, choose 2 or 3 other imaginary people (putting post it’s high on chair backs) to practice landing your thoughts to assure that you’re speaking to everyone in the room.

After the first run-through, collect feedback from your partner on filler words, any uhs and ums, monotone delivery, and any up-speak (going up in pitch at the end of sentences so that it sounds like you’re asking a question). 

Give it another go incorporating the feedback, then switch.


Once you’ve identified your specific challenges (filler words, monotone delivery), start to practice incorporating your new delivery style in your everyday conversations in low stakes meetings or calls. Eventually, it’ll become automatic, and you won’t have to think about it. That way, when you get up to speak, you can focus on telling a great story rather than how many times you say “um.”