The Power of First Impressions
Learn verbal and nonverbal ways to convey warmth and competence.
“Let’s get started!” How often do you or your teammates use these words to kick off a group fitness class or personal training session? When you’re on the receiving end of a motivating command like this, you sense the power of first impressions. Their impact is immediate. As observed by Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (Bibliomotion 2015), “They are fast and . . . stubborn” (Peterson, Abramson & Stutman 2020). Whether good or bad, first impressions are tough to change once they’re formed. Let’s explore why this is so and what we can do as fitness professionals to manage first impressions by lever-aging our capacity to show warmth and competence.
The Sway of Instinct
Social cognition theory tells us that gathering information about our environment through social perception is a primal instinct. When encountering someone for the first time, we quickly decide whether the person intends us good or ill will. Psychology research has identified two dimensions, warmth and competence, as the key factors influencing our first impressions (Fiske, Cuddy & Glick 2007).
Warmth has to do with the “Do I like you?” decision. In its most primal form, this reduces to the question of, “Are you a friend or an enemy?” Additional questions are, “Can I trust you?” and “Do I feel safe around you?” Competence comes down to the question of, “Can I rely on you?” From just a brief interaction, I must decide whether you will follow through on what you promise and if you are the type of person who can help me accomplish my goals.
Think about it. Perhaps you’ve taken a class with an instructor who was fun and likable but whose teaching suggested a weak knowledge of exercise physiology. Perhaps you know a trainer who comes across as extremely knowledgeable but makes no effort to engage with clients personally. Which of the two would you give a second chance, and which would you drop? What exactly is it that influences your first impressions in either a face-to-face or virtual first meetings? Fiske, Cuddy & Glick found that the first factor we judge in another person is warmth, before we evaluate competence. Warmth carries the greatest impact in our judgments of whether to trust someone or not (Knight 2016).
This doesn’t mean we should neglect competence when making first impressions. Both dimensions must be presented effectively, not only when we first meet clients but also as we keep engaging with them. This is true whether we’re teaching students directly—in either a live or virtual setting—or recording videos for them.
Here is a practical guide to how you can strengthen both warmth and competence in verbal and nonverbal communication, beginning at the “Let’s Get Started” point and going from there.
How to Convey Warmth for First Impressions
In human interactions, warmth is what keeps people feeling connected. It turns a collection of individuals into a community. There are many ways to intentionally imbue your communication style with more warmth and improve first impressions.
Use people’s names. Our names are the closest connection to our identity, and when people make the effort to learn and use them, we perk up. In a face-to-face setting, remembering a new member’s name can be challenging, and you may need to work at it quite intentionally. One benefit of virtual settings is the label on the bottom left of each person’s image. I generally double-check the screen before using someone’s name, but this can backfire if a participant logs into a virtual class with an email address. When this happens, encourage participants to change their names for the day and become their superhero, their alter ego or anything else that would make the class fun.
Use “we” and “you” language. This will help you to come across as welcoming and inclusive. We have all been in classes where the instructor sounded overbearing, starting every sentence with an “I”: “I want you to do this” or “I need to see that.”
Vary the inflection of your voice. The more conversational your speech, the more warmth your audience will experience from you. In my “day job,” I teach students and executives to sound more extemporaneous and engaged no matter how exciting or bland the topic may be. One hack for increasing tone variance is to include open-ended or rhetorical questions. Because your tone rises with a question, you come across as more interesting and engaging when you break up straight lecturing with this intonation. Just be sure to reserve the rising tone for questions; don’t resort to continual “uptalk,” that manner of speaking in which declarative sentences end with a rising inflection, as if they were questions. Record yourself giving a brief presentation and play it back to evaluate how effectively you use inflection. If you are still unsure of your performance, you can download speech evaluation apps, such as Orai, that provide objective feedback on recorded presentations.
Engage before and after class. As you interact verbally with participants, use pre-class huddles to keep them connected with you and one another. Whether you are in person or online, a few open-ended questions that encourage people to interact and feel like they are part of a community is an outstanding strategy for communicating warmth and enhancing the overall experience. After class, use huddles again or just stay awhile and be available for anyone who might have a question.
Be mindful of posture and body language. Keep your stance open and oriented toward your audience. Establish good eye contact with your client or class, and moderate the energy you deliver in your initial welcome based on the size of your class. With in-person classes and one-on-one or small-group training sessions, it’s easy to be welcoming simply by greeting clients at the door as they arrive. Virtual sessions are more challenging. Fine-tuning your appearance on the screen is one way to accentuate warmth. Position your camera on top in the center of the monitor, not to one side or the other. It may seem counterintuitive, but you give a stronger impression of speaking directly to your audience if you look directly at the camera and not at their faces on the screen. Also, you’ll be surprised by how much you can warm up your appearance with just a modest investment in ring lights. Experiment with both position and color to achieve the best results.
Smile (and more)! Another critical nonverbal skill, which you can apply in all contexts, is varying your facial expressions, with smiling being the number-one signal for communicating warmth. In fitness we are often mirroring what we want people to feel and experience. The larger the group, the bigger the venue or the more distant the context (as in a virtual session), the more we need to express emotion and energy through our faces. Facial expressions communicate authenticity and are often our first nonverbal means of connecting with participants.
Use the right music for the right audience at the right time. So much of your perceived perception as a fitness professional is interpreted through the music you choose. We all spend hours on our playlists and try to design the best mashups, genres, mixes of energy and motivation—and it does matter.
See also: Cycling Class Connection
How to Convey Competence for First Impressions
Warmth determines the primal instinct’s response to first impressions, but in the ever-evolving field of fitness education, competence is a critical component of our overall brand. Let’s look at verbal and nonverbal factors that communicate our competence in interactions.
Use accurate terminology. Your audience may not need to know the difference between the gluteus minimus and the gluteus medius, but referring to the “bootie” will do nothing for your professional credibility. It’s good to establish that you know your anatomical terms—just be sure to balance out scientific language with user-friendly instructions. I find that many yoga instructors strike a good balance, showcasing their education by sprinkling Sanskrit names into classes, but not overwhelming their students with terminology.
Drop all uptalk and fillers. We defined uptalk in the warmth section. When a sentence isn’t a question but is spoken as though it were one, the speaker sounds hesitant and unsure. Fitness instruction works best when it is conversational, motivating and personable.
What about fillers? Classes and all one-on-one personal training sessions can become insufferable when fitness professionals pepper their speech with expressions like “uhm,” “so,” “like” and “you know.” Replacing your fillers with pauses will immediately upgrade the credibility of your communication. If you are unsure about how much you rely on fillers, run a recording of your teaching through an app like Orai or LikeSo®. (These apps also provide opportunities to practice talking using impromptu topics.)
Speak with clarity and conviction. Just as you boost your credibility nonverbally by demonstrating proper form, you display verbal competence by clearly articulating class design and movement breakdown. Plan for progressions and gradual advancements of movement, provide options and pay close attention to your students, whether the class is live or virtual. The only way to do this is to watch your participants in action rather than being active yourself; you need to move about to observe their form and alignment. In our live Schwinn® cycling trainings, we encourage instructors to cue off the bike two to three times during a workout. The instructor’s role is to be more of a coach than a demonstrator. This gets very tricky in virtual sessions, but even walking up to the computer screen and scanning the gallery view will give you some useful cues.
Pay close attention to your dress, including logos. Depending on what you are trying to communicate, branded logos, activity-appropriate gear and the overall atmosphere of your session can send a quick message of high or low competence. Welcoming yoga participants to a clean, calm room, with props and mats set out for everyone attending, communicates the message that “we are ready for you to enjoy your flow.” By contrast, wearing a hat when teaching a virtual cycling class may look cool, but it will interfere with making good eye contact with class members. And a personal trainer who looks like she just worked out may seem to be walking her talk, but she could do more for her professional image by wearing a company-branded jacket.
Don’t underestimate the importance of hassle-free technology. A smooth presentation can have a significant effect on how participants perceive your professional competence. Back in March 2020, when we were thrust into the world of virtual fitness sessions, fitness pros faced a steep learning curve. Music volumes were not always aligned with instructors’ mics, connections got dropped and branded green screen logos didn’t always show up the way we wanted them to. All of these were nonverbal details we had to figure out in lightning speed because we knew they were compromising the perception of our competence. Whether you teach in a virtual or live setting, mastering the key components—including lighting, sound, music and voice mixing—will help you create a fitness experience that communicates both warmth and competence.
Demonstrate proper form, and provide options. Plan carefully, being mindful of progressions, and stick to moves that match the label of the class (e.g., beginner or advanced). I learned this lesson the hard way while subbing a TRX® virtual class. I quickly found myself twirling in every direction because I hadn’t sufficiently planned or practiced the movements and progressions I would teach.
Use audience-relevant music. With competence, as with warmth, music can be a huge factor in communicating successfully with your participants. In addition to a carefully crafted soundtrack that connects with your audience, a number of variables—including sound quality, modulation of volume, tight transitions and fadeouts—can create an impression of competence in a group fitness class.
Putting It All Together
You might be reading this and thinking, “This is all just common sense.” Yes, the basics of warmth and competence are not rocket science, but consider how difficult it can be to build both warmth and competence into all aspects of your teaching while maintaining an appropriate balance between them to create better first impressions. It can be tempting for instructors to design such complicated workouts that they end up communicating timing, form and directions in a robotic manner, at the expense of their personality coming through. Often, new instructors become so excited about being in front of a group that they get carried away with being friendly and welcoming, and they lose track of progressions and cuing.
If you have watched masterful fitness professionals in action, you know they make their craft look easy. It’s true that exuding warmth and competence in harmony looks effortless, but in most cases this ability comes from years of experience and deliberate practice. In a world that is turning more and more to remote forms of communication and learning, we need to boost our ability to convey both warmth and competence in every situation, live or virtual. Let’s get started!
Fiske, S.T., Cuddy, A.J.C., & Glick, P. 2007. Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11 (2), 77–83.
Peterson, S.J., Abramson, R., & Stutman, R.K. 2020. How to develop your leadership style: Concrete advice for a squishy challenge. Harvard Business Review. Accessed Apr. 22, 2021: hbr.org/2020/11/how-to-develop-your-leadership-style.
Knight, R. 2016. How to make a great first impression. Harvard Business Review. Accessed Apr. 22, 2021: hbr.org/2016/09/how-to-make-a-great-first-impression.
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