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5 Keys to Making a Great First Impression

Kelly Studer

Imagine this...one afternoon, you walk into the break room to grab a cup of coffee and the new department VP is there too. You've been dying to meet her, so you introduce yourself and start a conversation.  After a few minutes, she politely interrupts you and says she has to run to a meeting.  Three days later, you pass her in the hall and she tries to avoid eye contact with you.  That’s weird because you thought you had a great connection but clearly she’s avoiding you.

We’ve all had experiences like this and wondered what went wrong.  The good news is there are small tweaks we can all make to improve our first interactions and it doesn't require a lobotomy or changing our entire personality to win people over instantly.  Aren’t you relieved?

Alrighty, here are my 5 keys to making a great first impression:

Key #1: A firm handshake matters

What continually shocks me is how often I encounter men and women with weak handshakes.  From my perspective, when someone shakes my hand with a limp wrist or only grabs the end of my hand,  I will actually feels pangs of disappointment.  Based off the handshake alone, I assume they lack confidence and are socially awkward.  And if that person is a candidate for a job, that interview is nearly over before it even started.

Research findings show that a firm handshake characterized by strength, good eye contact, and a completeness of grip, leaves a positive impact.  And check this out.  Apparently women with firm handshakes were viewed more positively than men with comparably firm handshakes.  So ladies, don’t let me catch you shaking someone’s hand like a princess from the British royalty.  Give ‘em a firm grip, girl! If you’re not sure how your handshake comes across, ask a friend to critique it.

Key #2: Smile and lean in

No matter how nervous or uncomfortable you might feel prior to meeting someone, make an effort to smile and show your enthusiasm for meeting them.  It will put both of you at ease, give the impression you find them appealing or interesting, and boost your own confidence. A smile also evokes a “warmer” temperature, therefore making you more inviting.  Leaning in towards someone while smiling is an even more powerful combination.  When sitting across from someone you want to impress, try leaning towards them as if you’re trying to catch every word they are saying.  Just watch...as they start to become more focused on you back.  Sweet victory!

Key #3: Fit in rather than stand out

Yes, indeed.  Another key to a great first impression is to find common ground, not try to impress the other person with how unique and different you are.   It is a big gamble to appear superior or different, rather than more similar.  Try saving what makes you unique until after you’ve established a connection.  This may seem counterintuitive but stay with me here. I’m sure you’ve all met someone at a party who immediately tells you something impressive about themselves, such as where they went to school, their big job title, or eluded to how much money they make.  Were you blown away by how cool and impressive they were?  Probably not.  In fact, you were most likely looking for a quick escape.  Instead of being wowed and intrigued, you found the person self-absorbed and boring.

A best practice is to start a first conversation with a topic that you can both share an opinion on. Talk about something that you've noticed in your shared environment (e.g. the music playing, the interesting decor), the change in weather, a recent news event, etc.  Yeah, it's small talk but we need to do it for a reason.  Even during a job interview, spending a few minutes on small talk with each interviewer can make a big difference.

Key #4: Be positive

Have you ever shown up late to a first meeting with someone and immediately launched into the different reasons why you weren't on time?  Something like "Oh man, traffic was a mess, the parking attendant was super slow, and then the receptionist didn't acknowledge me for the longest time...but anyway, nice to meet you."

Research has shown that people weigh the very first moments they engage with someone much more heavily than later interactions.  Not only that, a negative impression is weighted even more heavily than a positive one.  What this means is that if you appear flustered, frustrated, or scattered within the first few minutes of meeting someone, they may perceive you in a negative light.  It may take them quite some time to see you in a positive light, even if you change your behavior quickly afterwards.  It will require many repeated positive behaviors to override that initial negative impression.

The next time you are feeling a bit frustrated about something just prior to meeting someone new, take a breath, gather yourself, and wipe those negative thoughts out of your head.  Walk in with that smile on your face.

Key #5: Look good

The way you dress, groom, and carry yourself is the first thing someone sees when they meet you.  When you feel good about the way you look and are comfortable with your appearance, it takes the pressure off and allows others to focus on you as a person.  Not unlike the concept of "Be like them," dressing in a way that is more similar to those you’re interacting with can make a difference in a first impression.  You can still absolutely project your own sense of style but recognize what story you are telling to others with your physical presentation.  When you are well groomed, stylish, and comfortable with your appearance you will be seen as confident and healthy.  Those who give little attention to their grooming or style tend to come across as disrespectful and socially unaware.

There are so many factors to making a great first impression but if you begin to practice and apply these 5 basic principles, I think you’ll find your initial interactions become much more enjoyable, rewarding, and positive. No matter what though, don’t force anything that doesn’t feel authentic to you.  The idea is to recognize how you can tweak your behavior for maximum positive impact, not to change who you are as a person.  Since you already are a great person, make sure everyone sees that right away and doesn’t miss out on your awesomeness from the start!