If you want to make new friends or land new clients or a new job, you need to make a great first impression -- fast. People form permanent opinions of those they meet within just a few minutes of setting eyes upon them. A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General reported that the first impression someone has of a new acquaintance is likely to always dominate the way he/she views this acquaintance. Any later evidence that this first impression might have been erroneous tends to be dismissed as nothing more than an exception to the rule.
The trouble is, making a good first impression can be tricky. Our words, actions, facial expressions and body language all send subtle messages, often without our even realizing that we are doing it.
Below are 11 tricks for making a great first impression. Pick just one or two to try at a time, and add more when those become second nature.
YOUR BODY AND FACE
Facial expression and body position can make you seem more likable to those you meet...
1. Use a slow-flooding smile. Obviously it’s a good idea to smile when you meet someone, but instantly switching on a 100-watt smile can make you seem phony. Instead, let your smile build slowly when you make eye contact. This sends the message that there is something about this person in particular that you like.
2. Have "sticky" eyes. People are inclined to like and trust those who make strong eye contact. If you are not a natural at maintaining eye contact, make it a habit to note specific characteristics about new acquaintances’ eyes -- what color are they... what shape... how far apart... how long are their lashes... how often do they blink... how often do they look away while talking to you? Answering these questions will force you to make strong eye contact with the other person.
Do break eye contact occasionally -- staring too intently can make people uncomfortable -- but don’t do it abruptly. Break eye contact slowly, as if your gaze were stuck on this person and you find it difficult to pull it away.
3. Select an open, welcoming body position. Arrange yourself so that your torso is mostly but not completely facing the person whom you just met. During the first minute of conversation, very slowly and slightly rotate your body to completely face this person.
Exception: A man meeting a woman for the first time should stop a few degrees short of angling his upper body directly toward hers. That seems overly aggressive to some women.
If you are holding a drink or plate of hors d’oeuvres, either find a spot to set it down or hold it down by your side. If you hold it up in front of your chest, your arm will block off your body, making you seem less open. If you are self-conscious about what to do with your hands, use gestures when you talk or even put your hands in your pockets -- just don’t cross your arms across your chest, which makes you seem closed off.
4. Stand with one foot a few inches forward of the other. Put most of your weight on the forward foot. This stance suggests that you’re an energetic person and are interested in the person with whom you are speaking.
Even seemingly inconsequential actions can affect how you are viewed during an initial meeting...
5. Find your conversation partner’s personal-space comfort zone. Stand too close to a new acquaintance, and you will make him feel uncomfortable. Stand too far away, and the odds increase that he will not feel a connection with you. What’s the proper distance? For the average American, it’s around 24 inches. Trouble is, that’s just an average -- everyone is a little different.
The best strategy is to start a conversation with a new acquaintance by placing yourself 26 to 28 inches away. Move toward this person imperceptibly slowly until you see discomfort in his eyes. Then ease back very slightly until that discomfort disappears.
6. When you shake hands, very gently touch your forefinger to the other person’s wrist. Aim for the spot on the underside of the wrist where you would take a pulse. This is a very sensitive spot, and gently touching it tends to foster a feeling of warmth and closeness, even though your light contact might not be consciously noticed by the other person. Attempting this wrist touch also forces a deep handshake, which encourages a sense of closeness, too.
7. Treat business cards with respect. A business card symbolizes someone’s professional accomplishments. Showing respect for the card shows respect for the person. When you are handed a card, imagine that it is a delicate and precious gift. Hold it gently in your hands. Pause to read it, then carefully place it into your briefcase or purse or, at the very least, your wallet. Never just jam a card into a pocket.
A few tips for an initial conversation...
8. Begin with a conversation starter question or two. Questions that make great icebreakers include, "What do you do?" followed by "How did you decide that you wanted to do that?"... Or (to couples) "How did you two meet?"
9. Slowly nod while people speak. This sends a message of acceptance and encouragement, which makes people feel more in sync with us.
Important: Be aware that men and women can have different interpretations of nodding. Do not nod if a man is saying something with which you completely disagree. Your nodding might be interpreted as agreement. Women, however, tend to interpret nodding as meaning, "I understand," not "I agree."
10. Listen for words that suggest people’s interests. The words that people use and the topics that they reference, even in passing, often provide hints at their true areas of interest. If you can spot these words and topics, you can redirect dull, forgettable small-talk conversations toward things that people actually want to talk about.
Examples: If the small talk is about the weather and someone says, "At least the rain is good for my plants," seize on the word plants and ask, "Do you have a garden?" If someone says, "It’s been too hot to walk my dogs," seize on the word dogs and ask "What kind of dogs do you have?"
11. Use the same terms as your conversation partner. This is particularly important when discussing topics that tend to matter to a lot of people, such as their families or careers.
Examples: If a parent refers to her "child," you should ask about her "child" as well, not her "little one" or "baby." If someone refers to his "profession," you should refer to it as his "profession," not his "job" or "career."
People tend to use the terms that their family members or closest friends use. If you use the same terms, it increases the odds that this person will feel comfortable with you.
Source: Leil Lowndes, a communications consultant and corporate trainer based in New York City, whose clients have included The Walt Disney Company, Kodak and the US Peace Corps. She is author of How to Instantly Connect with Anyone (McGraw-Hill).