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How Do People Perceive You?

communication leadership personal brand
Two women at a conference table are talking and being perceived by another person.


Your reputation is what people say about you when you're not in the room. 

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO


By John Millen

We like to say we don’t judge people, but the truth is that’s what we do. All the time.

Our subconscious minds begin accessing people from the moment we see them, and they are judging us.
It’s human. It’s how we evolved.

Our evolutionary survival instinct has wired us to address basic questions about people: Can I trust this person? How is she feeling? Friendly? Angry? Is there a threat?

After the initial impression, if there’s no threat, we’ll continue to gather more information about who they are and how we relate. Being tribal animals, we’ll evaluate their status relative to ours.
Our minds will continue to process based on many factors simultaneously: We look at how they’re dressed. How they walk. Their confidence level. Their facial expressions. Are they smiling? Are they sad?

These are all analyzed by our subconscious minds instantly, and recalibrated again and again as we reassess.
In his landmark book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell goes deep on analyzing the process of “thin-slicing” that allows our subconscious mind to make correct instantaneous judgments based on a myriad of factors. I highly recommend this book.

In one example, Gladwell documents how quickly students could accurately gauge the effectiveness of a college professor whom they had never met – or even heard. Here’s an excerpt:

How long did it take you, when you were in college, to decide how good a teacher your professor was? A class? Two classes? A semester? The psychologist Nalini Ambady once gave students three 10-second videotapes – with the sound turned off – and found they had no difficulty at all coming up with a rating of the teacher’s effectiveness.

Then Ambady cut the clips back to five seconds, and the ratings were the same. They were remarkably consistent even when she showed the students just two seconds.
Then Ambady compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations of those same professors made by their students after a full semester of classes, and she found that they were also essentially the same.

A person watching a silent two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the teacher’s class for an entire semester. That’s the power of the adaptive unconscious.

It raises the question of how we are perceived by others. What signals are you sending to others by your behavior, style of dress, manner of speaking and body language? 

When people think of you, how do they perceive you? Do they think of you as friendly? Annoying? Smart?

Your Personal Brand 

The words that they use to describe you are a good indication of your personal brand – their perception of your reputation.

This is important because people's perception of you is reality. If they believe you are selfish, then they will assume every word you say and everything you do is to benefit you and no one else.

During a recent keynote talk on leader communication, I asked the audience to write down three adjectives that others would use to describe them.

I have a slide that lists two columns of positive words, such as “trustworthy, energetic and capable,” and another two columns listing more negative words such as “belligerent, greedy and secretive.”

It's no surprise that the audience tends to choose from the “positive” words (though a woman got a laugh shouting out that people would call her “bitchy,” one of the words listed.)

The Perception Gap

I then asked for a volunteer from the audience, who had to be okay with being talked about by audience members. A tall, well-dressed woman came forward and I asked someone at her table who had just met her to give three adjectives to describe her. I also asked someone else who’d known her for years to do the same.

Then the woman gave the three words she thought people would use to describe her. All three were quite different. This is the perception gap: the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others really perceive us.

Testing Your Self-perception

As I do in other keynotes and training, I asked these business people to take the three adjectives and test them with friends, family and business associates to see if their self-perception is on the mark.

From follow-up emails I receive, I know that for many people it can be a revelation: other people think of them much differently than they think of themselves.

This simple exercise is one small step in the process of understanding peoples’ perception of you, your personal brand. For leaders, this can be a critical success factor.

Try this: What Words Describe You?

What three adjectives would other people use to describe you? 

Are they the three you want to describe you?

Are they consistent with how you intend to project yourself?

Give it a try! Ask others you trust the three words they would use to describe you. For best results ask friends, neutral people, and even possible adversaries what adjectives they would use.

This is also a useful exercise to use with your team or business. In other words, what are the three words your clients would use to describe your team or your business?

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John Millen

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