10 Things politicians can teach us about impression management

B2B Editor8 July 2016

10 Things politicians can teach us about impression management

What comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton? I’ll wager the images and thoughts you have are very different from Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten! Both Trump and Turnbull are independently wealthy, that’s for sure. But would a man like Trump ever be taken seriously in our political landscape? I’m not sure he would. Hilary and Shorten both have policies, but I’m not sure Clinton’s would gain much ground if she were over here either.

Why compare these four? Because almost everything about politics, business and life is about image management. Spin doctors earn a lot of money because they can actually change perception about facts and truth. Let’s unpack five things you should avoid, and five things you can work on so you can create fantastic first impressions. Or perhaps I should say, be a winning campaigner instead of an also ran.

An introduction to image
One wonders what the Australian comedy drama ‘Utopia’ would make of today’s politics in America?

My first bet is they’d make a play on the change in Donald Trump’s hair colour. Back in November 2015 it was a cheesy, Dorito kind of colour. Today it is steel grey and serious, just like Turnbull’s. How did that happen? Was it the stress of the campaign trail, or was it (like everything else Trump does) part of the marketing machine? You can bet it was a well-crafted decision to make Trump appear wise and be taken seriously.

What about Clinton’s missing emails back in October 2015? State Department, FBI and NSA have all been unable to recover them as yet. Yes of course I’m interested in whether she should be impeached, but I’m much more interested in how she used a diversion tactic and subject change to make the public look away. Brilliant stage craft, befitting a magician.

One of the most powerful stagecraft tips we can take away from observing politicians is their body language – both good and bad.

Bad Body Language
It’s easy to get body language wrong, even when you know what to do. I was at a seven day training event practising my moves and I was going for a “power” image. After two days the convener came to me saying one of the speakers really felt like I was distant, stand offish and perhaps angry with her. That isn’t exactly what I was going for!

You should practice any body language changes you want to make, in low stakes environments so you can gauge the effect, learn and adapt them for next time. Watch people more closely, especially in restaurants or work environments and see how their behaviour affects the people they are with. Here are five watch outs to manage your body language better.

1. The eyes have it. Do not look out the window or at the ground when people are speaking to you. Look your conversation partner or interviewer right in the eye (or look straight into the camera). But don’t get creepy and stare, look away from time to time for a few seconds. This way you will appear engaged.

2. Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. Don’t nod constantly in agreement. People in authority and with personal power hardly ever smile or agree with their prospect. When presenting you can smile and be warm but again, careful on that nodding behaviour.

3. Don’t fidget. Any form of fidgeting will be perceived as insecurity. Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard both used to fidget, and their personal trainer got them to stop. Hilary Clinton did this all the way through the March 12, 2016 press conference. This includes playing with your hair, jiggling your leg, licking your lips, biting or cleaning your fingernails, touching jewellery and other kinds of self-grooming (Casserly, 2012).

4. Take nothing with you! Consider very carefully whether props of any kind are necessary. Take no bag, no folder, no pen and no coins. We often use these as a barrier or defence against others. If you play with anything while you’re speaking, you’re done for.

5. Treasure chest. Sitting at absolute right angles to someone is perceived as confrontation. Instead, feather your chest away slightly even by just 5 degrees. Sit straight up (slouching is lazy) and lean slightly forward (it shows interest). Leaning back shows disinterest (Navarro, 2008).

Good body language
We have the opportunity to make first impressions every day. Much of the time those impressions are not important, but in many environments, like a job interview, the stakes are high. Our highly evolved brains make rapid fire judgments in 1/100 of a second. It takes about 7 seconds to confirm that judgment then quietly re-evaluate over the next 30 minutes (Willis & Todorov, 2006).

Influence is a very subtle thing. It’s a range of behaviours related to presence – a ghost like trait researcher’s find hard to pin down. Some influence rests in verbal cues, some in non verbal ones. Trump is a classic with his shoulder shrugs to avoid questions or smirking and eye rolling to dismiss his opponents. Let’s look at five things you can selfmanage to create a winning first impression.

1. Arrive early! Get to all your appointments in Goldilocks time. If you are too early you may fret and become anxious. If you arrive late you will form a bad impression in the minds of those waiting for you and arrive without grace and poise.

2. Watch the way you walk in. Again take the Goldilocks path. Don’t mince in quietly and don’t stride in overconfidently. This goes for the space you take up as well: do not be a turtle (shrinking down) and do not be a bear (taking up the whole space).

3. Watch your contact points. The handshake is probably the only time you will make physical contact with a person first time round. It should not be too light or loose (you’ve heard the proverbial fish in the hand-shake) and not too tight or tough. Put hand moisturiser on in the morning so your hands are soft but not sweaty. Keep them in your pockets. Warm hands are perceived well.

4. Do not answer questions straight away. Overly agreeable people seem weak-willed. Do not agree all the way through the questions either. Being over eager is annoying. From time to time wait a full two seconds before answering a question (Fox-Cabane, 2014). That’s harder than you might think.

5. Use your voice to your advantage. Your voice is a very subtle tool and sometimes the first time a person meets you is over the phone. Lower pitch voices are perceived better than higher ones (again both Hawke and Gillard got coaching in this area). Watch your use of slang like saying “like” a lot, or “cheers mate” and “you blokes.”
All in all, have fun observing others, and becoming more aware of your own image and body language!


  • Casserly, M., (2012) “10 Body Language Tics that could cost you the Interview,” Forbes, Entrepreneur section.
  • Fox-Cabane, O., (2014). “The Charisma Myth.” Chapter 1.
  • Navarro, J., (2008). “What Every Body is Saying,” Torso Tips, pp 88-89.
  • Willis, J. & Todorov, A., (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after 100 ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17, (7):592-598.

Dr Robert Holmes, Manager at RSM Australia in their Consulting division, works in the people & change space. Please feel free to contact Robert on 02 6217 0300 or :[email protected] should you wish to discuss anything raised in this article.