First impressions


Elephants never forget

There are an awful lot of cliches. You know the sort.


  • You have thirty seconds to make an impression on a first meeting.
  • You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

Psychologists tell us that we do make judgments about the characters of the people we meet fairly instantaneously. It worries me that people do this, because we can all be wrong, and quite radically wrong. If we are out networking and therefore perhaps working our way round a room, I think we can make quite serious mistakes.

Fish out of water

When I left the corporate world and started in business on my own I carried with me all the old prejudices, and because I started meeting a greater variety of people and indeed clients, I floundered at the outset. I didn’t know how to deal with many of them.

In the world of the City, most clients were wealthy and / or high earners and most had a good educational background. By “good” I mean that they had gone to schools in better-off areas, and had gone to university or college. Perhaps they had worked their way up after starting as school-leavers. Perhaps they had been taken on by more sought-after employers because of whom they knew or more likely whom their patents knew. It was all very cosy as I now realise.

The new pond

However, there are some very smart people out there who do not speak “posh”, who didn’t get through college and who have got where they have got through hard work of course, but also because they are very bright; yes, intelligent.

It takes not just guts to build a major firm of hauliers (for example) from scratch. It takes intelligence and an ability to think on one’s feet. An ability to keep quite a few balls in the air if only in the head. An ability to adjust quickly to deal with the unexpected. Of course this is stuff we mostly don’t learn at school anyway, but it takes a clever person as opposed to just a well-educated person to run a business well.

Some people may come across as brash. They may have a questionable taste in clothes (although they may think we have). They may have hobbies we might think of as odd. They may just know what they are doing pretty well and can teach us a thing or too.

Mr Memory

It is easy to judge a book by its cover – and I am rolling out the cliches – but I remember in another context making a mistake I am glad I made because I learned from it.

A few years ago my wife and I were in South Africa staying in a hotel in the bush on the edge of the Kruger National Park. We had a waiter who was not in the first flush of youth. He was a local with a brilliant sense of humour, but obviously with no or little formal education. Because we were on a tour, we were regularly seated at a table of eight. This guy came and took the orders for the starters and main course (different every night) in one go, plus the drinks order and the wine for later. That isn’t necessarily the done thing in restaurants at home, but we weren’t at home.

The thing about our waiter was that he never wrote anything down. Sixteen food orders plus eight aperitifs and the wine, all in one go. Plainly the reason our waiter didn’t write down the orders was because he couldn’t read and write. He never got anything wrong though, and when he brought the order he remembered who was having what.

Plainly this gentleman had a fantastic memory and probably a terrific brain, but he had never had an education.

So please don’t judge a book by its cover or a person just by their appearance and the way they speak. You may be missing your next great business opportunity.

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