Thin Slicing: A First Impression

By Martin Tothill

Martin lives to help and grow others to be the best leaders they can and in turn inspire a future generation of followers to do the very same.

How do you judge a book? You know the answer. But is meeting people any different?

First impressions get formed in an instant. They weigh you up, make a judgment and then bingo, they’ve reached their conclusion. But what if you could influence people’s first impressions of you? How cool would that be?

The already well-known concept of Thin Slicing (making quick judgments from very limited information) was further popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink. It’s how people form a picture of a person in a moment. The impressions or macro traits we form such as trust, competence, warmth or dominance are often the story we build when trying to understand others. We all do it and the research suggests it’s very reliable - only 5 seconds of interaction can give an accurate reading of a person’s impact.

Importantly, these macro traits aren’t formed by some kind of sixth sense, they are usually built up of the tiniest of behaviours that we display when interacting with others, especially strangers. Smiling, eye contact and open-handed gestures might tell others that we are warm, friendly and confident, whereas fidgeting, stiff posture or facing another direction could lead others to believe we are insecure, cold or even rude. Psychologists refer to these small behaviours as micro traits. And they are incredibly important in how others perceive us more broadly.

So should we simply hide our emotions? A poker face assumes nothing is ever given away but how many of us can keep that up all day? More likely our micro traits are constantly and subconsciously being broadcast to the world and if left unchecked could be transmitting all sorts of messages about us.

But before you run for cover, here is some Catseye wisdom. Be ok with it. By knowing thin slicing happens you can check yourself better and prepare to give the impression you really want to give.

And if you’re ready to put it into practice, try this workout to get you started:

  1. Think about an event or meeting coming up where you want to make a positive first impression
  2. Select the macro traits that you want people to perceive of you (maximum of 5)
  3. Break each one down into a series of micro-traits (2-4 per macro trait)
  4. Practise the ones you feel least confident about
  5. Grab a friend and get some feedback

By the time the meeting comes round, you’ll be ready to knock them out the park!



  1. anon
    Jan 12, 2016

    I find this all the time and often wondered if I had a sixth sense. Slightly scary to think that people may assume things about me when first meeting me. Looks like I had better shape up!

  1. anon
    Jan 12, 2016

    Hi Stefan,

    I know, it's slightly sad to find out that we don't have super-hero powers. That said, you've got a real headstart now. Just think about what impression you want to create and plan it in advance. A great colleague of mine talks about 30:30:30.

    First 30 seconds

    First 30 words

    ....and first 30 centimetres (i.e. facial expressions)

    I find its a great guide for getting things off on the right foot.


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