While you may hope that people will take the time to get to know you before making assumptions about you, the reality is that first impressions are everything. If you aren’t wowing people within the first few seconds of meeting, you'll face an uphill battle when it comes to shifting their opinions.
Why first impressions matter.
You may think first impressions don’t matter, but plenty of science proves this belief wrong. A first impression sets the stage for how people view you in the future, and there’s nothing you can do to change that: This is a direct byproduct of the way the human brain stores information.
“The sequence that we encounter matters in how we judge subsequent information,” Arthur Dobrin, who has a doctorate in social work, wrote in Psychology Today. "The exaggerated impact of first impressions is related to the halo effect, that phenomenon whereby the perception of positive qualities in one thing or part gives rise to the perception of similar qualities in related things or in the whole.”
Dobrin used an example to solidify this point. In a mock scenario, imagine you're meeting someone at a party, and you have a wonderful time getting to know this person. He or she seems like a nice person and you exchange contact information, to hang out again in the future. Then, the next week,when you’re asked by your boss to solicit sponsors for a worthy cause, you immediately think of this new contact from the party.
“In reality, there is no inherent connection between being pleasant and being generous,” Dobrin pointed out. “Yet the halo effect leads you to make that unwarranted assumption that the two are related. Most conclude that if she [or he] was good in one category (sociable), she will also be positive in another (generous).”
In other words, as humans, we are intrinsically inclined to judge people. That's partly a safety and defense mechanism that we use to keep from engaging with threats. But it also helps us make assumptions about whom we’d enjoy being friends with and whom we’d rather stay away from.
While it’s possible that an initial impression of someone will change after you get to know him or her, you don’t often get a second or third chance in the business world.
If you want to increase your chances of being successful in sales, networking or another related pursuit, you must learn how to master the first impression. And, given the considerable research into first impressions and how people can strengthen their image in those crucial first seconds, here are some top techniques for doing just that:
1. Master the art of the handshake.
Your father probably discussed with you the importance of having a good handshake, but did you know that handshakes really are a big determining factor when it comes to first impressions?
In one study, University of Illinois researchers used MRI scans to monitor the brain activity of participants as they watched videos of people interacting in business situations. The researchers found that a positive “social evaluation” occurs in the brain when handshakes are present.
Asked what the most important takeaway would be for business professionals, the study’s co-leader didn't hesitate in her response.
“I would tell them to be aware of the power of a handshake,” University of Illinois researcher Sanda Dolcos reported. “We found that it not only increases the positive effect toward a favorable interaction, but it also diminishes the impact of a negative impression. Many of our social interactions may go wrong for one reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings.”
Sounds good. But how you give a handshake matters more than the simple act of offering your hand to someone you meet. A good handshake is firm and dry, lasts two or three seconds and is accompanied by eye contact and a smile.
2. Get your visual appearance right.
What you wear and how you look really does matter to people. According to studies conducted by researchers in the U.K. and Turkey, something as simple as the suit a man wears can have a direct impact on how people view his character. In the study, 300 participants were exposed to images of a man and woman. In some of the pictures, the man wore a custom-tailored suit. In other pictures, he wore an “off the rack” generic version.
After being exposed to these images for just three seconds, participants overwhelmingly judged the man in the tailored suit more favorably. And they didn’t just say he looked better -- they actually rated him as more successful, confident and likely wealthier. This speaks to the importance of getting your clothing right.
3. Always carry a business card.
Business cards . . . are they even useful anymore? With the rise of social networking, search engines, text messaging and email, it’s easy to feel as if business cards are a thing of the past. However, this is a grave mistake. While business cards may no longer serve their original purpose, they remain an emblem of professionalism and responsibility.
When you present someone with a business card, you're showing that you’re prepared and professional. You’ve taken the time to design, print and carry a card with you. While the person you’re meeting can search your name on LinkedIn, the fact that you carry a card is what matters most.
Not all business cards are created equal, however. When designing a card, carefully consider the selection of cardstock and the image you’re presenting. A thicker stock may be more expensive, but there’s something about holding a sturdy card that leaves a good impression.
4. Become a small-talk aficionado.
Small talk. A lot of people despise small talk, but we live in a world where conversation plays an important role in making impressions. If you want to make positive first impressions wherever you go, you have to strike a good balance between not saying enough and speaking too much.
“Ideally, small talk will uncover common interests, business alignments, the six degrees that separate you, potential need for your product or service and basically whether or not you enjoy each other’s company,” corporate trainer Allison Graham wrote in Fast Company. “The goal is not to become best friends or a new client on the spot.”
If small talk isn’t your thing, the best skill you can pick up is the ability to ask good questions and listen. Once you get the other person talking, you become more comfortable and can occasionally interject a few lines of your own.