You’ve heard it before: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
It seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? That moment you meet someone is a small sample of your day and an even smaller sample of who you are.
It might not be your best moment:
- maybe you’re stressed out…
- maybe you woke up on the wrong side of the bed…
- maybe you didn’t have time to shave or look your best…
It’s you, but it’s not really you at your best.
But to that person you’re meeting, that small snippet of you is 100% of what they know about you. Unfortunately, that can have a lasting effect.
For whatever reason, humans are hard-wired to hold onto first impressions.
According to Olivia Fox Cabane in The Charisma Myth, research shows that we have a choice between changing our minds about something and trying to find proof that there’s no reason to change our minds, we gravitate towards the proof.
Once we make a judgment about someone, everything else gets filtered through that lens.
If you make a bad first impression, it’s not that you can’t recover. It’s just an uphill battle at that point.
So, what can you do to make great first impressions from the start?
The obvious answer might be: to be your best self. But that’s pretty vague. It may be partially true, but there’s more to it than that.
When we meet someone for the first time, we are communicating with them on a couple different levels.
First, there’s non-verbal communication. What you say without saying anything. There are a few different dimensions of non-verbal communication. In essence, you want to make sure all of them are working for you rather than against you.
It’s not fair but it’s true. People make judgments about you based on how you look.
How are you dressed? It’s not about whether you’re wearing expensive clothes, but do you look like you take care of yourself? Do you take pride in your appearance? Is your hair combed? Is our outfit intentional, and does it fit the environment?
If you show up to a networking event in ripped jeans and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt, you give off a very different vibe than if you wear a tailored suit to that same event.
Next there’s body language—and this is huge. If you’ve got bad posture, you’re slumped or slouched or you seem closed off, that’s going to come across. Maybe not on a conscious level, but subconsciously people notice it.
Whether you know it or not, you’re sending the message that you lack confidence, that you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, or that you’re not happy to be there.
Why not take the opposite approach? Make your body language represent the best version of you. Stand up straight, pull back your shoulders, suck in the gut, and walk with purpose.
Not only does that send a more positive message outward, as Amy Cuddy’s research shows, it can also send a more positive internal message to you, by improving your cortisol and testosterone levels…which ultimately gives you more confidence.
Next there’s your overall warmth. Are you smiling? Are you making eye contact? Or do you seem distant and distracted?
Do you look a friendly person who’d be open to chatting with someone? Or do you have that cranky look like you got sand in your boxer briefs?
Which of those is going to make you seem more welcoming to talk to?
In social situations, no matter how confident people are, nobody wants to be judged or rejected. Everybody wants to be accepted.
If you can make it clear you are a “welcoming environment” you’ll increase your ability to make a good first impression with strangers.
The final—and really important—part of non-verbal communication is your handshake. What does it say about you?
Is it a limp-fish apology-of-a-handshake that says “I have no confidence and I’m not that interested in meeting you”?
Or is it the other extreme that says “Because of my various and deeply-rooted insecurities, I feel compelled to demonstrate my strength by trying to crush your knuckles with my manly grip”?
No, you don’t want either of those. You want something in between: firm yet measured. Your handshake should say “I’m a confident man, and I’m excited to meet you and learn more about you.”
The other major component of a first impression is verbal communication—what you actually say.
In his book Chatter, Patrick King says that the verbal first impression consists of the first 10-20 words out of your mouth.
Whether this is true is hard to say. I think it depends on the conversation. The important point is, when you meet someone, the first few things you talk about—and how you talk about them—will shape how that other person perceives you….possibly for a very long time.
That’s why Patrick’s next piece of advice is really helpful…
Be a Storyteller
When you first meet someone, there’s going to be some base-level “get to know you” conversation. Whether you’re a fan of small talk or not, it’s just a fact of life. Chances are, the other person will ask you questions about what you do for work, where you’re from, what you do for fun, or how you know a mutual connection, etc.
Instead of answering by dryly recounting facts about who you are, Patricks says you should think of your life in terms of “mini-stories.”
How much more memorable are you if you attach a colorful anecdote to each aspect of who you are?
Instead of saying “I’m an accountant,” you can say “I’m an accountant and a total math nerd. In fact, I loved crunching numbers so much as a kid, that instead of wanting a BMX bike for my 7th birthday, I insisted that my parents use that money to send me to math camp.”
Having a few unique tidbits like this prepared ahead of time can help you stand out and make a memorable first impression. Adding personal details like this can also help build rapport with someone you’ve just met since it gives them something to latch onto—possibly a shared interest or passion.
If nothing else, a humorous or harrowing story can often help break the ice.
Being able to talk about yourself in an interesting way is great. But even more important is to learn to be a great listener.
In First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You, authors Ann Demarais and Valerie White say there are 4 emotional dynamics at play when you interact with someone:
- How you feel about yourself (because people can often pick up on that)
- How you feel about the other person (again, this can often come across, albeit subtly)
- How the other person feels about you
- How the other person feels about himself or herself
Demarais and White argue that the last one is the most important.
Ultimately, in any interaction, most people don’t really care if you’re rich or poor, tall or short, or that you have a 180 IQ. They just want to feel valued and appreciated.
As Maya Angelou said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So yes, you want to be your best self and be interesting. But the other person’s experience of talking to you is really more about them. That’s where being a good listener comes in.
Listening—really actively listening—shows that you are fully present and you value the other person:
- Body language: leaning in towards them, making eye contact, maybe tilting your head to the side and making it clear that you’re processing what they’re saying.
- Verbally reacting and asking follow-up questions that show you’re in the story with them. “Wow, I can’t believe you survived that boat ride down the Amazon! How did you avoid the crocodiles?”
- Matching your emotion and energy level with theirs: when they are telling an exciting part of their story, your excitement rises. When they bring the energy level down, you’re right there with them.
What’s amazing is how much this improves their impression of you. Even if you barely share anything about yourself, giving them your undivided attention can make you memorable in their eyes.
One of my favorite stories about this is from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie talks about how one evening he went to a dinner party and found himself seated next to a Botanist.
Carnegie talks about how one evening he went to a dinner party and found himself seated next to a botanist. Being the great conversationalist he was, Carnegie immediately started asking the botanist about his work. The botanist talked on and on about plant biology, etc.
Instead of changing the subject to something he knew more about, Carnegie found a way to be genuinely interested and kept asking the botanist to tell him more about botany.
At the end of the night, the botanist told the host that Dale was “such an interesting person” and such an amazing conversationalist.
Funny thing was, Dale had barely said a word all night. That’s the power of being a great listener.
Even if it doesn’t seem fair, the old saying is true: you never get second chance to make a first impression. Once people make an initial assessment of you, they continue to see you through that lens.
So, when making a first impression, you should strive to be the person you want people to remember.
That means taking stock of all the things you say without saying anything…to make sure they work for you, not against you:
- Your appearance
- Your body language
- Your overall warmth
- Your handshake
It also means becoming a better conversationalist, which is probably 30% about learning how to tell your story in a more interesting way, and 70% about becoming genuinely interested in hearing other people’s stories.