The bad news is – as we mentioned above – that the expectations of others are tricky to second-guess.
But the good news, is that you can both unmask and influence the expectations of others, both of which are helpful for maximising the likelihood of a good outcome.
The first thing to think about, are the expectations dictated by the circumstances. Are you at an interview, a formal business meeting, a football match? What are the common tropes and conventions of such occasions? Once you have a picture of that in your head, you can then have a more objective look at yourself and the role that you might play. You can then ask yourself three key questions which all have to do with expectations:
- Do you look the part?
- Do you sound the part?
- Can you play the part?
Regardless of what the law says, what political correctness says and what we want the world to be like – in most circumstances we’re going to be judged first on our looks. What are the likely expectations around our age, gender, nationality, dress and body language? Are we conforming to or subverting those expectations? Both can be powerful, but we should we be aware of them so that we can maximise our impact.
If you’re a tall, American woman in quite formal attire, how can you play the situation if they’re expecting a short, Asian man in casual clothes? What happens when you’re the only person in the room wearing trainers, or a tie, or a dress? You’ve likely just subverted expectations – so here’s your chance to turn that to your advantage.
The second area where we’ll meet strong expectations is around our voice – how we sound. This will obviously be different for telephone interviews or voice auditions but, for most circumstances, the voice will play a vital supporting role.
The voice now offers a chance to confirm or confound their expectations and how that works depends largely on how the visuals played out. If you were visually what they expected, then half of your work is done, now you just have to make sure that you can speak in a manner consistent with how you’ve presented yourself. Once again, what are the tropes and conventions at play? Can you meet them, can you exceed or bend them?
With some of the leg-work done by the visual presentation, you may have a little latitude with the other party’s expectations of your voice.
If your visuals however confounded their expectations of the situation, then your voice is going to play a much greater role in establishing credibility and asserting your stake in the situation. If you overdressed for the occasion, your voice can loosen up and say “no worries, I can do casual”. If the reverse is true, then you have to adjust accordingly.
When the first expectation goes awry and the voice does nothing to correct it, the situation is more challenging. “I once saw a presentation from someone senior from Silicon Valley, who was very credible. I had a mental image of someone ‘high-fly’ but, when he arrived, he was not dressed for the occasion, he was very monotone and had two slides. My high-hopes were dashed as a result and I didn’t end up taking away as much as I would have wanted to”, says Bal Bansal, Associate Director of Innovation at Coca-Cola.
Had the presenter realised that their visual appearance did not meet expectations, whether purposely or not, they could have changed up their vocal style a little to re-establish credibility. In fact, sometimes people can really work this to their advantage, as pointed out by Hugo Pickford-Wardle, Chief Innovation Officer at Matter AI. “I find that people take you more seriously when you break their expectations rather than when you meet them.” But you can only do this if: 1. You’re aware of the possible expectations in the first place, and 2. You have the flexibility to consciously tweak your voice and delivery on the fly.
Given that you can’t control the visual circumstances and expectations to any degree of certainty, the voice is an area where flexibility can be extremely powerful, as it allows you to radically influence the end outcome following the initial expectation.
Thirdly however, is whether you can actually play the part. Can you walk the walk?
As we write, we’re witnessing a global diplomatic meltdown as the United States has annointed a chief representative for the global stage who not only doesn’t look or sound the part, but most certainly cannot play the part.
Your voice and looks will only get you so far, you still need to be able to do the job that’s called for – you need to be able to back up what you say with the appropriate knowledge, experience and action.
There is no cheat or shortcut here – you’ve either put in the work to pull this part off, or you haven’t. Your appearance and voice can make this last part harder or easier for the other party to swallow, but a sharp suit and some flowery words will only mask inexperience for so long.
If you want to succeed, you need to do the work. If you want to give your work the best shot – then understanding, managing, confirming and subverting expectations, deliberately and carefully is the best road to a successful outcome.