We are all judges. It’s hard-wired; we can’t avoid it. Throughout human history we’ve used quick decisions to judge situations and other people for safety and that has helped our species survive. So while we’d like to think everyone around us is open and objective, it’s just not the case.
This means that being able to make a good first impression matters.
Over the lifetime of a friendship or relationship, you’ll have dozens or hundreds of experiences that all blend together into a complex understanding of a person. But in the first few moments, all you’ve got to go on is that first impression.
And the world is small. This person’s opinion of you — even if you were rushed or having a bad day or had another great excuse for being rude or cold to them — can come back to impact you in a million different possible ways. Business contacts matter especially, since your industry and community is an even smaller world, and the same people will see each other everywhere. The person you met for 30 seconds at a conference may someday interview you for a job; your coworker’s former coworker may be your boss one day.
But what if you’re not good at making first impressions? What if you’re awkward or shy or bad with names?
Making a good first impression is a skill, so luckily it is in our power to learn how to be better at it!
At the core of making a good first impression is knowing how to quickly put other people at ease, so they know they can trust you. See yourself through their eyes, and help them to understand who you are and where you fit in their perspective. First encounters are under your control, if you just master a few basic techniques.
Knowing what to say
It’s a good idea to keep introductions simple and positive. If you tend to clam up around new people, practice smiling and saying out loud, “It’s so nice to meet you! I’m [your name].” It may feel silly to do, but it’s better to practice and be prepared than to fail in person.
When the other person introduces themselves, repeat their name back to them. It will help you remember. You can even keep a prepared question ready to ask to fill that awkward silence that sometimes falls after initial introductions.
You can cater it to the event (for example, “Have you been to this event before, [their name]?”) or it can be more general (“How has your day been so far, [their name]?”).
Some people encourage skipping standard “So, what do you do?” kinds of questions, but if that’s all you can come up with or feel comfortable asking, don’t be afraid to stay simple. You can work up to asking people “So, what’s your passion project?” eventually; it’s better to have a standby you can count on in the moment.
Keep your conversation positive. It can feel easy or comfortable to slip into gossip or complaining, but it generally makes a really negative impression to the other person (even if they initiated it).
So instead, try to make your questions and answers positive. Ask if they like the venue, not “isn’t it cold in here?”. Tell them about the great conference you went to last week, not about what a rough day at the office you had.
And if you’re ever in doubt, ask the other person about themselves. Everybody likes to be asked about themselves; it is a (nearly!) universal rule. Where are they from? What do they do? How long have they been doing that?
You can also pose questions to them that aren’t so personal, but that still demonstrate an interest in them. Did they read anything good recently? What are they watching on TV? Which speaker are they most looking forward to? What does the next week or month look like for them? What are they going to do this weekend? This is a great way to still learn what a person cares about without putting them on the spot or diving too deep too quickly.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” — Dale Carnegie
Your body language matters just as much (if not more) than your words — some people say as much as 80% of what we interpret from communication is non-verbal. The way you hold yourself can completely change how other people perceive you. There are a couple of simple things you can do to put other people at ease and make a good first impression:
Smile. It naturally puts other people at ease, even if it feel unnatural to you to do.
Shake hands. Give a good, firm handshake and make eye contact while you do it.
Maintain eye contact while talking. This helps you build an initial connection and shows interest.
Keep arms uncrossed. Crossed arms appear closed off and angry.
Hold something in your hands if you’re uncomfortable. A glass, your phone (as long as you aren’t constantly checking it), or another small item can help you keep your hands occupied — but don’t hold anything that will require two hands, otherwise handshakes will be tricky.
Stand up straight. Try to exude confidence. A good mantra works well for this; pump yourself up mentally and remind yourself how awesome you are. It will help you naturally hold your shoulders back and head up.
Reading other people’s signals
Be conscious of what other people are telling you. If people seem anxious or distracted, they may be short on time or stressed out, so don’t try to wrangle them into a long conversation.
Similarly, if someone is nodding along with you or seems particularly engaged, this is an opportunity! Get their contact information and follow up with them. When someone is already engaged with you, it’s like a freebie; take advantage of this connection and nurture it, since you never know when it may come in handy…
Remember that just making a good first impression is a win
You may feel like you need to commit every person you meet to a followup meeting, or pitch them your startup idea, or sell them on your company before they’re allowed to walk away. You don’t. In fact, if you approach an introduction like you need to make a sale, the other person will most likely pick up that feeling from you, and it’s a turn-off.
So don’t make your goal with every meeting to *get* something from the other person. Relationships are the at the core of success and business, but those relationships have to be established before you start asking for things from people. Unless you are in a really unique situation where you absolutely have to take a shot, let most of your introductions be just that — a new beginning of a potential long term, positive relationship.
When in doubt, make it about the other person
I just read this quote the other day, and I think it is especially fitting:
“No man ever listened his way out of a job.” — Calvin Coolidge (tweet this!)
The greatest networkers and leaders are often the best listeners. Sure, the person who is the life of the party, cracking people up, and running the whole room is doing well too — but that person is the exception, not the rule. The world’s greatest leaders tend to be the world’s greatest listeners. They make the people around them feel comfortable. They help give other people a platform to talk about their feelings and interests.
So when you are meeting someone new, try to remember that all the tips and tricks in the world are no match for being genuinely interested in the other person, and letting them know that. All it takes is listening, asking good questions, and being appreciative of the opportunity to meet.
If you can make your goal to be the person who makes other people feel better for having met them, you’ll be well on your way to making a great first impression everywhere you go.