Is the handshake everything?

Tricia Prickett, an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, collected videotapes of 20-minute job interviews in order to test the adage that "the handshake is everything." She took 15 seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and is welcomed by the interviewer.

She then got a series of strangers to rate the applicants on the basis of the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used for the original 20-minute interviews.

Against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. On 9 out of the 11 traits on which the applicants were being judged, the 15-second observers predicted the outcome of the 20-minute interview.

Maybe yes, but it's not accurate

It turns out that other experiments show that our first impressions are not altogether accurate.

Scientists call our tendency to leap to judgment the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's an error because how a person behaves in one situation is not an accurate predictor of her behavior in a different situation.

We vastly underestimate the role of context in controlling human behavior and instead base our judgments on extremely limited information.

Take control with a strong opener

Nevertheless, as speakers, we can take advantage of this human frailty. When we step to the front of the room to deliver a presentation and all eyes are on us, we can take control using the tools at our disposal: physical, vocal, and verbal skills meant to capture the mind of the listener.

But content can also be invaluable. There are infinite ways to take control of your first impression with many different types of opening lines. Here are just a few:

A simple statement of your main theme or premise

For instance, Seth Godin gave a speech saying that marketing technical products was too important to leave to marketers. He began his speech by saying, "Marketing technical products is too important to leave to marketers." Pretty good summary headline, don't you think?

Asking for an audience response

"How many of you have ever wondered where your next meal is coming from?" And then wait for the hands to go up, or not.

A brief, gripping description of a problem faced by the audience

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. Our sales data is locked up in the laptops of our salespeople, and we can't get it out."

Painting a picture of a hoped-for and hard-earned success

"I wish you could have seen me. When I finished the presentation, people were standing and applauding, and my boss came up to me, in front of everyone, and said that was the best talk he'd ever seen. All my work with my coach paid off. I was literally a changed person--loose, relaxed, and bubbling with all the attention."

Pointing out what you and your listeners have in common

"I am a professional speaker. I get paid for my performance. I believe you get paid for the same thing, except your performance lasts a year and mine only lasts an hour. Nevertheless, it's all about how you show up. I stand on a stage, you sit at a desk, but we both get paid to perform."

A startling statement

"The best way to rob a bank is to own one."

Telling a story

"About a mile into the woods, my childhood friends and I discovered a hill that was covered with tall, dead trees. We knocked them down with our bare hands, and called the place Superman Land."

A personal anecdote

"I called a friend of mine and his answering machine said, 'Sorry, memory is full. Goodbye.' It made me think that many people are so preoccupied these days that they have no time, no space, no ability to listen."

Using a visual aid or prop

"I have in my hand a silicon wafer. It has transformed with world of man, yet it is made of one of the most common commodities in the world: sand!"

Using a famous quotation

"Acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions."

--Daniel Kahneman, Princeton psychology professor and Nobel laureate

Starting with an intellectual puzzle

"We're always reading that there are literally millions of undiscovered insects in the Amazon rainforest. I'm completely stumped by the variety of creatures that show up on my front porch in suburban New Jersey. Who are they? What are their names? And why on earth are they knocking on my door?"

Using an analogy

"Public speaking is like splitting firewood. Your words and manner must open their minds at the start; you must be crisp about it, with no wasted effort; and like a good axe-man, take a balanced stand on the issues."

If our listeners insist on attributing to us those qualities they glimpse in the first few seconds of our talks, despite subsequent evidence to the contrary, let us employ all means at our disposal to take advantage of their leap to judgment. Let us be masters of body language and wizards of the engaging start. For speakers, it seems, all's well that begins well!