First Impressions: Fatal or First Prize?

By Jack Perry

Everyone formulates first impressions of others upon meeting them. We look at the way the other person dresses, his or her hairstyle, and other physical features, and then we quickly decide whether we like the person or not. In fact, many studies show that we form these impressions in mere seconds.

John Gottman of the University of Washington observed newlywed couples in the 1970s. He watched their subtle interactions and tendencies for only fifteen minutes and was able to predict with ninety percent accuracy which couples would still be married fifteen years later. In another study, Nalani Ambady of the Harvard Department of Psychology observed the length of time it takes to form a first impression by recording ten second video clips of individual professors. She showed the clips to a group of students and asked them to rate and evaluate each professor. When Ambady compared these students’ evaluations with those from students who had actually taken the professors’ classes for the entire semester, the correlation was amazing. She found that the students from the first group were able to formulate impressions in only ten seconds that were similar to the second group who’d seen the professors for an entire semester.

Whether accurate or not, people often base all their subsequent interactions with others on these initial impressions. So have you ever thought about the first impressions other people formulate about you? Probably not. In reality, most people don’t. But if you want to be the best you can possibly be in sales or business, the first impression you exude is crucial to your success. Work on it, polish it, and practice it!

What Forms First Impressions? First impressions are based on everything you see, hear, and smell. In a business setting, this means others will be looking at how you dress, what you say, and your personal grooming habits. Equally important are your non-verbal communication messages. Albert Marabian of UCLA studied what aspects of communication actually communicate the most to other people. He found that fifty-five percent of communication is received from body language. Another thirty-eight percent is received from tone of voice. And only seven percent is the actual words. That means that over half of your initial message comes across through your posture—the way you hold and move your arms, the position of your eyes, and other completely non-verbal methods. And in the case of a contradiction between your words and your body language, body language always prevails.

It deserves to be said that first impressions aren’t always fair or accurate. But remember the saying, “If you try to swim upstream, you will drown.” You can’t fight the rules and be successful, and the rules dictate that you must be well-groomed and well-dressed. Look at yourself in the mirror before going to work in the morning and ask yourself, “Would I do business with me?” If you can’t answer “yes,” then you might as well get back into bed.

So how can you make a winning first impression every time? Consider the following tips.

1. Focus on Your Prospect: Your first meeting with others determines whether they want to conduct business with you in the future. Therefore, you want to be right there, in the moment, with your prospects. Don’t look over their shoulders or scan the room for someone else to talk to; look your prospects in the eyes and focus on what they have to say. If you happen to be at a large networking function, don’t get distracted and think that you need to meet everyone. You’re actually better off if you meet one or two people and establish a winning impression by spending time with them rather than making casual contact with many people.

2. Establish a Presence: Confidence comes across in the way you stand, move, and handle yourself in a group. When you’re confident and calm, you create a positive presence. So the next time you enter the boardroom or a sales meeting, put your nerves and insecurities aside and walk in as if you own the building. But keep in mind: confidence is very different from arrogance, which creates only a very negative presence.

3. Use a Firm Handshake: Handshakes, especially in business settings, are often the first body language another person will notice because they are used as greetings. Therefore, they are important in developing good first impressions. The University of Alabama published a study on handshakes in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that identified a firm handshake for some duration coupled with eye contact communicates that the person is sociable, open, and friendly. By contrast, a weak handshake communicates that the person is shy and introverted, or indifferent.

4. Get Organized: Especially in business, organization is a crucial part of impressions. For example, if you get into a salesperson’s car and it’s a filthy mess, you probably won’t feel comfortable signing his contract. Or, if you meet with a lawyer whose briefcase is so jammed with loose pieces of paper that it takes her five minutes to find a pen, you probably won’t feel comfortable with her representation. A lack of organization sends a message that the person doesn’t pay attention to detail and might even produce sloppy work. Take the time to stay organized and tidy.

5. Consider Your Prospect’s Background: Consider the people you’ll be meeting and the environment you’ll be in. In certain geographic and economic backgrounds, you must tailor your style of dress and behavior to fit in. For example, if you’re meeting a prospective client on his ranch in Idaho, your custom made suit and shiny Lexus might alienate you. Likewise, a dusty truck and cowboy boots could alienate a prospect in Beverly Hills. To relate comfortably with people and make them feel comfortable about you, you can’t seem like an outsider.

6. Don’t Scream Success: If you want people to think you’re a big shot, then you never want to say in words that you’re a big shot. Don’t brag about your fancy toys or pricey clothes. Everyone has met a person like this and was irritated by his or her behavior. Let your appearance, body language, voice, and listening skills communicate your level of success.

Successful First Impressions…Every Time: If you’re serious about your career and you want to be as successful as possible, then great first impressions are the key. Everything you do, say, and wear formulates the way the world sees you. And because people decide their impression of you in seconds, you must consider the way your prospects will perceive you before actually meeting them. When you use these tips for creating a winning first impression, you’ll secure more sales and achieve higher levels of business success.

Read other articles and learn more about Jack Perry.

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