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Posted: August 19, 2013

Best of CoBiz: The seven-second sales test

That's how long you have to sell yourself

Julie Hansen

I try not to make snap judgments. But I do. And apparently, so do a lot of other people.

Researchers from NYU discovered that we make 11 major decisions about a person in the first seven seconds. Is this person trustworthy? Are they likable? Confident? Someone worth getting to know better? Given that, are you passing or failing the Seven-Second Test?

Most people fail to make a strong first impression, and salespeople are no exception. It's not that we're not interesting, charming or knowledgeable, it's because we don't convey that quickly enough, which makes us forgettable. And to be forgettable in business today is a cardinal sin that you can't afford to make.

It's important to remember what you're selling in the first seven seconds, and it's not your product, your service or your cause. You're selling yourself. You're selling a listener on continuing your conversation or giving you an opportunity to pitch your product or service. As the customer says to the announcer in the Qwest radio ad currently airing: "permission to continue talking."

Few people know more about making a powerful first impression quickly than actors. In business, you are the actor and your prospect or client is the casting director. Casting directors are like any other business person today, busy professionals with a limited amount of time and hundreds of people vying for their attention. An actor has to quickly demonstrate what sets him apart in order to get a chance to be heard. In the same way, you need to demonstrate to your prospect why you are different and why you should be heard. So how do you do this in only seven seconds?

Here are five tips from casting directors that I've adapted for use in business:

1. Be interesting.
Casting directors and prospects alike are looking for something that sets you apart, something beyond "that guy in the green shirt." They're looking for that one person to wow them and make their decision easy. Most people give them very little to work with. No, you don't have to learn to juggle or tell jokes. Make an interesting observation about the circumstances or tell a short anecdote, weave something memorable into your introduction or answer to common questions like, "What do you do?" Focus on what makes you or the situation unique and you increase the likelihood of being remembered.

2. Don't ask questions.
Or at least, don't ask the same questions that everyone else does, and don't ask questions about things you should already know. Questions, casting directors say, should be used to clarify and connect -- not teach you their business. According to one of my clients, it's irritating to be asked to explain his business to salespeople when that information is readily available online. Instead of, "How's business?" try doing a little research and leading with it. "I see your new product line is really taking off. What do you attribute to your success?" This is much more engaging and shows interest.

3. Don't assume you'll get another chance.
Salespeople, like actors, often hold back when they first meet someone until they've gauged the temperature of the room. But if you don't pass that first critical Seven Seconds, you may be out of luck. Make it easy for people to get to know you. Be mentally and physically prepared to go all in. Commit to the moment and give it your best shot. (Improv is excellent for helping you develop this skill.)

4. Make good eye contact
You want to connect with the person you're talking to-not bore holes into their head. Shifty eyes send the wrong message but unrelenting eye contact can also be off-putting. It's natural to look away while thinking or processing information, just remember to bring your focus back to your listener.

5. Show confidence:
If you don't believe you have something of value to offer, no one else will either. Casting directors want to believe that the next actor through the door is the answer to their dreams-and most prospects (no matter how brusque) want to believe that you can help solve their problems. Apologizing for taking up their time, excessively thanking them or being overly deferential can make them doubt your value. Be courteous and respectful without groveling.

Though we form an impression in seven seconds, it can take a lifetime to change one. Case in point: that nickname you got saddled with in first grade that you still can't shake.

Now go forth and impress. Fast.

Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at, start a sales conversation at  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Sales is hard work and people who think that it is just a lot of talk don't have a clue. I constantly study trade magazines etc to stay ahead of the curve and when a new product comes out, I make sure that I now everything that there is to know about it. Sometimes I think that salesmen don't do a good enough job with the PR of their job. Most professional depend on good salesmen to keep them up to speed. Ask a doctor. By John Wray on 2011 02 21
Agreed. Confidence comes in all sorts of styles: soft, loud and everything in between. And I think we are basically saying the same thing: confidence without preparation is not a winning strategy. And being prepared does not mean that you are necessarily confident, just as being confident does not mean that you are prepared. I recall over-preparing as a new salesperson and still lacking confidence! Certainly when you bring experience to the equation, as you and I do, it adds to confidence as well. Thanks for your input! By Julie Hansen on 2011 02 21
Julie, I completely agree, but I submit that "confidence" without preparation will fail. I've know every sort of sales person in my 40 year career and I've learned not to pre judge them. Some are quiet, some are loud, etc. and each has their own personality and style and that's okay. The prep part cannot be missing though. By John Wray on 2011 02 19
Good point, John. Certainly preparation and product knowledge are a huge part of confidence, however some people who are highly prepared on an intellectual basis can still lack confidence in their ability to express themselves or present their product or service in the best light. I believe that type of confidence is more of an inside job. What do you think? By Julie Hansen on 2011 02 19
Julie takes a shot at a very small part of the sales process, but a good one. I submit that the confidence etc that she mentions comes from good preparation. By John Wray on 2011 02 19
Julie's insight to the first seven seconds really makes sense. Liked her "show confidence" point of "If you don't believe you have something of value to offer, no one else will either". By Dessie on 2011 02 19
Even if you're a pro like I am, it's still good to get reminders and to re evaluate your approach. It's always been my contention that confidence comes from knowing your product better than anyone else. Education never stops. By John Wray on 2011 02 17
I've been following Julie's articles since the beginning, and look forward to them every week. Her ideas are fresh and easy to incorporate—which is great since I'm not an actress. I've been stuck in the same pitch for awhile, and am now re-vamping my strategy for the better. By molly on 2011 02 17
Good summation By John Wray on 2011 02 16
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