The saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression” holds true in many situations, from job interviews to sales calls. How can you make sure that you start off on the right foot in any of these scenarios? What should you actually say? And what’s the best way to follow up?
What the Experts Say
First impressions matter so much because they happen fast, and they are stubborn, says Whitney Johnson, the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. “We make judgments [about other people] in a nanosecond.” And once that impression is formed, it’s “very, very hard to change it.” Simply put, your relationships and interactions will be a lot easier if you’re able to immediately start off strong. “You get the benefit of the doubt,” says Dorie Clark, the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. “So then if you ever say the wrong thing, make a mistake, or arrive at work late, the other person is more likely to assume the best.” A strong first impression, she says, “gives you more latitude to be human.” Here are some strategies to help ensure others see the best in you from the beginning.
Prepare talking points
Before meeting someone new — whether it’s a potential employer or a new client — do your homework. Know who you’re meeting, what he cares about, and what he might need from you. Your goal, says Johnson, is to “show that you understand the problem the other person is trying to solve and how your skills put you in a position to help.” Clark suggests preparing “two or three talking points that you feel are important and that you want to get across during the meeting.” These talking points will vary, depending on the situation, but in general they should showcase your knowledge, strategic planning abilities, and “grasp of the business.” Ideally the points will crop up “organically” during the course of your discussion, “but if you get to the end of the conversation, and they haven’t emerged say something like, ‘Before we leave, there are few things I want to make sure I mention.’”
Be aware of your body language
When meeting someone new, it’s normal to be nervous but you don’t want your anxiety to show. Your body language should be “confident and comfortable,” says Clark. That advice is easier preached than executed, of course, so Clark suggests, “using the methodology of power posing [before the meeting] to tamp down your cortisol levels.” Take long strides. Sit up straight. Walk with your chest held high. Even if this isn’t your natural way of being, you can assume simple poses that will increase your confidence. For particularly high-stakes meetings, it may also be worthwhile to videotape yourself ahead of time so you can see how the other person will view you, adds Johnson. Observing yourself in this way will help you identify how you can improve your delivery.
Play to your strengths
It’s useful to have a “trusted cabinet” of friends and colleagues who can help you understand “how you come across to the world,” says Clark. Ask them what they see as your “strengths, your winning traits, and the most likable things about you,” and then try to emphasize those things when you’re meeting someone new. Johnson suggests thinking about compliments you’ve received from coworkers and bosses. “You might dismiss compliments for things that come naturally to you — but in fact, those are the things that you’re best at” and what you should highlight when you’re trying to make a good impression. The next task is to translate those compliments to something measurable. If, for instance, colleagues say you are a great people manager, seek out metrics to support that idea. Perhaps your direct reports tend to get promoted faster or your team is more productive. “Don’t toot your own horn. Present evidence that toots it for you,” adds Clark.
Find something in common
Another way to build rapport is to, “find a bond or a point of commonality,” says Clark. The bond needn’t “be profound”— it could be that you “attended the same university, have kids the same age, or have read the same book recently.” The goal is to create a connection on a human level. Finding out what you have in common with the person might require a bit of detective work on your part. Look for clues about things like a devotion for a certain sports team, a love for a region of the world, or an admiration for a particular historical figure. “In this day and age, it’s perfectly normal to have researched someone on LinkedIn” which often provides conversational fodder, says Johnson. The point is, “don’t discount small talk. It’s often conversational gold.”
Engage and be engaging
“The most common mistake people make when trying to make a good impression is that they think they have to impress the other person with their vast knowledge,” says Clark. But the fact is, your aim is “not to wow and dazzle” but rather “to create a conversation that’s memorable” and engaging. So try to draw out the other person. And listen to what they have to say. “The better you make the other person feel, the more they’ll be inclined to have a positive impression of you,” says Clark. Keep in mind that people love to talk about themselves so ask thoughtful, open-ended questions such as, “What are you most excited about right now?” Doing so “allows you to tap into what the person is passionate about.” It could be a new assignment at work, upcoming travel, or a new product lineup. There’s also “a lot of power in having a very good conversation around your respective areas of expertise,” Johnson says. “The camaraderie develops naturally.”
Even when the conversation is over, your job isn’t yet done. To ensure your first impression sticks, it’s wise to “write a personalized note of sincere appreciation,” says Johnson. The note ought to “recap the conversation” in a way that “shows you’ve thought about it or learned some new insight” from it. “If the person is on social media, convey that you want to connect,” she says. Share a blog that he has written on LinkedIn. Tweet an article that mentions him or his company. Read his book and send him a note about it. You want to show that your conversation had an impact on you while also “bringing yourself to the table.”
Principles to Remember
- Plan ahead by preparing talking points to get across during your meeting
- Gather feedback from trusted colleagues on your best traits and try to emphasize your strengths when you meet someone new
- Ask questions and try to draw out the other person; the better you make them feel, the more likely they are to have a positive impression of you
- Your body language should be relaxed, confident, and comfortable
- Discount small talk. It can be a good way to uncover common bonds.
- Instead present evidence that speaks to your domain expertise and managerial experience