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How to make a great first impression (and fix it if it goes wrong)

First impressions matter, but if they don't work out perfectly there's ways to correct them too.

No matter how high we rise up the ranks, there's always more rarefied atmosphere above, with people and situations we have yet to encounter and new challenges to be overcome.

Have you noticed that the higher up we go, the more important the people we interface face, more needs to be said and done in less and less time?

So if you think about it, it only gets harder and harder to make that good first impression.

Amazingly, if you boil it down, first impressions are fundamentally the same, no matter if it's Kindergarten or if it's the boardroom of a Fortune 100 company.

Let's talk about five ways we can make a strong first impression.

  1. Present a blend of friendliness and authority - Sounds obvious when you think about it, but presenting oneself as a warm person can go a long way to 'melting the ice' (insert your own temperature-based joke). What we forget sometimes is being friendly doesn't have to mean being docile or meek. A friendly handshake can be firm, a smiling face can be confident, and a pleasant voice can bring authority with it. What we're aiming for is presenting ourselves as someone that is simultaneously easy to get along with and someone who gets things done.

  2. Master your personal introduction - The personal intro (your headline, your bio, credentials) is a topic we can write books about in of itself. For the moment, though, think of your resume as a good shorthand - we have a headline, crisp, short summary of your caliber and achievements, with some sense of your goals in mind. Action words are key and don't be shy of a modicum of name-dropping in the right context. The goal here is to remind people why you're in the room, and ensure they know you belong there.

  3. Pleasantries and listening - One communication tip you'll often find me repeating is "speak once, listen twice". People enjoy talking to us when they find us curious and attentive listeners, perhaps we ask them about themselves and even follow up questions on topics they brought up. Being a strong conversation partner is a sure-fire way of connecting with people in a real and personable way.

  4. Provide value - This sounds real salesy, but stay with me. People want to connect with someone that's useful (or could be useful to them in the future). Your skills, experience, connections and knowledge are ways people measure what you can do for them, and we can even find ways to explicitly point this out, saying things in our personal intro like "I help people do X" or "after working with me, people are able to achieve Y". The more value you provide, and the more your value to them exceeds theirs to you, the more leverage you have in that relationship, and the stronger the impression.

  5. End strong - We tend to think of first impressions as literally the first words one might say to a new person, I like to think of it as the whole interaction, say a five minute conversation you have with them at a business event. In that last minute or so, you have a golden opportunity to reinforce anything you said earlier, almost like a recap (people are forgetful, you know!) and also a chance to suggest a future interaction ("let me know when you're in town again and we can grab coffee!"). Naturally, contact information can be exchanged at this point, followed by a strong, friendly handshake, friendly words and a smooth goodbye.

What if the first impression goes wrong?

This can happen to the best of us - maybe you were nervous, or unprepared, or the opportunity was unexpected. Many things can cause this important first interaction to go awry.

However, can one make amends?

Most believe that the "first impression is the last impression". There's no denying that you can't make people forget something terrible like an insult or faux pas that crossed a line. Or perhaps, the opportunity that was on the table was time sensitive, and despite best intentions the time window has passed, so the situation cannot be fixed.

So, how and in what situations can you fix a bad first impression?

  1. Sincere apologies + olive branch - Let's say the bad first impression was something important, but minor if you look at the big picture. For instance, I had someone show up very late indeed for our meeting, over 30 minutes late. They sincerely and un-reservedly apologized ("there's no excuses") and for the follow-up meeting they picked up the coffee shop tab. Unreserved apologies (and gifts) are a strong, one-time solution for a bad first impression, after all we are all forgiving to some extent, knowing full well we are not perfect ourselves, so giving another chance to someone feels fair if they really do feel bad and want to sincerely make amends.

  2. Concede some key requirements - I have seen it happen where due to one party being difficult in negotiations at an earlier stage of business discussions, they realize they have taken up an unreasonable amount of time, and end up making a significant concession of some kind, including renewing a contract for another year, or agreeing to a raise in billed amounts. So in other words, if we're difficult on one item of discussion, we have to concede another item of discussion (or two!).

  3. Flattery - This sounds terribly gauche and in bad taste, but it works! The best of us have egos and like it or not, some amount of praise (even if inauthentic) does hit home because it's what we want to hear.

  4. References - Either beforehand or after the fact, if we bring to light the fact that we have common network connections, the aggrieved party tries to find a way to think of us in the same lines as the person they already know, it gives them a frame of reference that they'd use to give us more of a kindly glance and makes them more forgiving.

  5. Self deprecating humor - Sometimes after a bad first impression or faux pas, the easiest way is to say a comment like "boy that was a terrible introduction! You must think I'm a mess! Can I start over?", and these comments defuse a tense and awkward situation quite often, people are ultimately looking for genuine and decent people, who don't take themselves too seriously. So when in doubt, just ask for another chance on-the-spot, and if luck goes your way, you can fix that bad first impression.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is we often think an interaction was less successful than it actually was - nervousness is felt more than it is seen, and people often have made up their minds (mostly) before they actually start speaking to us. They've looked us up online, perhaps reviewed our resume, social media or website, and estimated our value to them beforehand, the interaction is ultimately just confirming their earlier judgment.

The best way to think about first impressions is that ultimately the right people will give us a fair chance. And that's the best we can hope for.


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