3 Simple Strategies for a Standout First Impression
In most competitive sports, getting off to a good start can mean the difference between winning and losing. Our hyper-competitive world of work is much the same. Getting off to a rough start with a new boss, colleague or client can put us at a distinct disadvantage.
Of course, the optimist in us will count on a second chance to recover from what reputational harm we may have done to ourselves in that first encounter.
If only it were that easy.
As a team of psychologists from the United States, Canada and Belgium discovered, negative first impressions are particularly difficult to shake, even if we do get that second chance. The research showed that a positive impression made after an initial negative one is limited to the specific context in which it was made, while the original negative perception will continue to count against us in all other contexts. In other words, we must find many different opportunities in varying contexts in which to make a positive subsequent impression to sufficiently weaken an initial negative one.
The good news is that we never run out of opportunities to make first impressions. Think about all the people you meet at networking and industry events, at new jobs, at interviews and client pitches, and at investor presentations and contract negotiations. That’s just in your professional life.
To ensure you make the best of these many opportunities, I recommend three simple yet powerful strategies.
To make a powerful first impression and forge an emotional connection, make an effort to exude a sense of kindness. This sends signals to the amygdala in our brain (the area responsible for triggering a fight-or-flight response) by positioning us to the other person as someone who does not pose a threat.
When our minds are swiftly assessing whether someone is friend or foe, a perception of genuine kindness and warmth can help immediately establish trust and positive expectations.
If you do the opposite and appear cold and aloof, people may feel disrespected or rejected, which triggers a threat response in their brain. In fact, neuroscience research reveals that rejection hurts, literally. It affects the same areas of the brain that are involved in the processing of physical pain, which can often make us withdraw or lash out in anger.
These responses are snap judgments. Researchers Andrea Abele of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Bogdan Wojciszke of the University of Gdansk found that the brain assesses a person’s kindness and warmth more quickly than their competence.
To project warmth, simply remember to smile. Engage with your eyes and with body language that reflects sincere interest, such as by turning toward the person as opposed to away from them. It’s the simple things that are noticed here, like a thoughtful handshake. Yes, thoughtful. Most people stick out their hand on autopilot, clasping the hand of the other without much thought given to proper position, pressure or duration of contact. Kindness is also evoked by asking questions and follow-up questions that demonstrate genuine interest in others. Sharing something personal about yourself can also increase trust and help others relate to you.
Although competence doesn’t get assessed as quickly as other traits, it is still a factor when someone is initially sizing you up.
One way to demonstrate competence is by appearing confident in your demeanor, tone of voice and openness to engage. But research also reveals that strong reputations, significant achievements and impressive networks can boost belief in your competence, especially in initial encounters.
The challenge is to convey all this without coming across as a braggart. Do speak up, but instead of proclaiming how great you are, tie your achievements to people, organizations and institutions whom the other person may know, trust and respect. Statements such as, “The way we solved these problems at Google ...” or “After I finished my MBA in Boston I decided to ...” can signal your achievements and associations without triggering your hearer’s gag reflex.
Moreover, display humility and kindness while establishing your competence. This requires a fine balance, to be sure, but it is doable. Harvard researchers Jennifer Lerner, Gary Sherman, Amy Cuddy and their colleagues found that people who can project a sense of calm competence -- especially in the face of challenges -- are viewed as “happy warriors” who can reassure others who follow them that all will be well.
Your opportunity to be that happy warrior can be found right in front of the next new person you meet. Keep in mind that the purpose of exhibiting these qualities is to persuade new acquaintances that you are worthy of their trust. You aren’t there to waste their time, and the encounter could lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.
What can you do for me? That question is uppermost in many people’s minds during initial encounters, but do not try to demonstrate your value to others as if you were making a generic elevator pitch. Instead of a blunt attempt to sell yourself, focus on how you can illustrate your unique value to that specific person, team or organization.
You can do this by being very clear about what it is that you do that conveys a tangible benefit to others. You may be likable but that does not matter if no one understands your purpose. Instead of just spitting out your name and job title when you meet someone, offer a simple explanation of what that means in terms of outcomes.
For example, when I’d introduce myself as an “executive coach” I’d often get responses such as, “Oh, like a life coach?” or, “Is that like a management consultant?” Clearly, there was no value in simply stating my profession, as many people aren't quite clear what my work as an executive coach entails and how someone might benefit. So I would add, “I help organizational leaders overcome blind spots and change behaviors so they can have a bigger impact at work and have more engaged employees.”
This is a brief statement, but it explains clearly the value of my work for my clients and their organizations. It also stimulates the reward center in the listeners’ brains because, from a neuroscience perspective, human brains are hungry for clarity and certainty. Moreover, a statement like this makes it easy for a person to imagine what you could do for them.
So whether you’re a CFO, a supply chain analyst, a sales leader or news editor, you can craft your own value statement by simply asking yourself this question: who benefits and how?
Kindness, competence, value: Three qualities that are crucial to convey when you seek to make a striking first impression. If you doubt the effort is worth it, remember a simple lesson from Robert Hogan, co-founder of Hogan Assessments: others marry us, hire us, fire us, promote us, lend us money and follow us, not because of what we think of ourselves but because of what they think of us. Be sure you are doing all you can to make what they think of you the best version of yourself it can possibly be.