Harness the Power of Digital First Impressions

man sitting at a desk on a computer

It is well known that the impression we give in the digital, academic, and professional world can make or break our reputation. We have the power to control what our audience gathers from our digital message based on what we present and how we present it. Knowing how to harness that power and use it to our full advantage will increase our chances that our message will be successfully delivered and interpreted as intended.

Guide the Audience’s Attention

The key to harnessing the power of first impressions is to guide the audience to the information on which we want them to focus, which lead them to form positive impressions of us. Baron, Byrne, and Branscombe (2006) found that humans innately have a strong negativity bias that’s essentially a greater sensitivity to negative information than positive information (p. 57). Because of our tendency to pay more attention toward negative details than positive ones, we must be mindful of the cues we emit in all interactions so that the positive will overpower the negative. In written documents such as emails, resumes, cover letters, and academic assignments, putting our best digital foot forward means making our written work as “physically attractive” as possible, and leading the reader to associate it with competence, expertise, honesty, and overall favorability (Kenrick, et al. 2010). According to Baron et al. (2006), the desire to make a good first impression is so strong that most people will do their best to “look good” when interacting with others for the first time by invoking a process called “impression management.”

Impression Management

The process of controlling the impressions others form about us is known as impression management (Kenrick, Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2010). Verbal and non-verbal components of a message influence the recipient’s acceptance of the message and of the person delivering it. Successfully projecting a good digital first impression is one of the best predictors of positive performance assessment for employees in a diverse job market (Sharp & Getz, 1996; Wayne & Lyden, 1995; Wayne et al., 1997; as cited in Baron, et al. 2006) and for students in an academic environment. We accomplish impression in two ways: self-presentation and self-promotion.


We have the power to influence the personal impression others have of us by focusing on our self-presentation -- our desire to present a positive image to others as well as to ourselves (Myers, 2010). To put our best digital foot forward, we choose the best representations of ourselves for public display. We select nice images of ourselves that accompany our work and include the use of warm tones and upbeat verbiage to provide viewers with a positive impression of our personalities. However, when we wish to achieve a professional goal or outcome, it is suggested that we step up our self-presentation efforts (Kenrick et al., 2010, p. 111) to self-promotion.


Self-promotion is a bit different from self-presentation in that the goals are usually more focused on demonstrating competence rather than personality. When we self-promote, we are publicly sharing our skills, expertise, and relevant experience. This type of promotion is an appropriate and effective process in the academic realm when submitting written assignments or discussions, and in the professional world when writing resumes and cover letters, or interacting on professional social networking sites while seeking employment or upward mobility in the field (Kenrick et al., 2010). Essentially, we use self-promotion to “show off” what we know (not necessarily who we are) to those evaluating us.

However, what many people don’t realize is the importance of how well we demonstrate competence or “what we know.” Presenting a well-written and clearly articulated document respects the reader’s time and the reader’s intelligence. Heuristic or peripheral cues such as the proper use of grammar, capital letters, tone, and a host of other mechanics influence the reader’s impression of the writer as being scholarly, educated, and knowledgeable. Negative cues such as consistently misplaced commas, inappropriately placed periods, and pervasive use of the lower case “i” distract the reader from the intended message and leave them with a less than favorable impression of the writer’s competence and expertise.

Credibility and Accuracy

When delivering a digital written message, it is important for us to craft our delivery to convey accuracy as well as credibility. Credible communicators who appear to be experts (or at least know a good deal about the topic) are more likely to persuade the audience (instructors, employers, etc.) than those who don’t (Baron, et al., 2006, p. 145). Accuracy is important, so ensuring that the facts and details are correct and applicable is imperative. Double-checking one’s work, having someone else proofread the work, or even reading it out loud are good ways to check for accuracy.

Credible communicators also exude the appearance of trustworthiness-- but the trustworthiness must be genuine (Perloff, 1993 as cited in Kenrick, et al., 2010). When people become anxious that putting their own best foot forward isn’t enough, they might be tempted to turn to deception to create a better impression. Whether online or in print, intentional plagiarism is never appropriate, and if caught, the presenter instantly creates an impression and reputation of being dishonest, insincere, hypocritical, and immoral, which is difficult if not impossible to reverse (Kenrick et al., 2010, p. 113).

Putting our best digital foot forward in every piece of written communication takes critical thought and a lot of effort. From the tone of our words, to our command of grammar and spelling, how we write makes just as much of a digital impression as what we write. Effectively harnessing the power of impression management can lead to your success in the academic and professional digital world.



Written by Dr. Wendy ConawayCore Faculty in the Entry Point & Social Science department.



Baron, R., Byrne, D, & Branscombe, N. (2006). Social psychology, (11th ed.). Boston,    

     MA: Allyn & Bacon

Kenrick, D., Neuberg, S., & Cialdiani, R. (2010). Social psychology: Goals in interaction,

     (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyne & Bacon

Myers, D. (2010). Social psychology, (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill

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