Friday, December 19, 2008

Do You Impress Strangers?

I want you to think back to the last person you met for the first time and name as many details about the person as you can. Now, look at your list and consider the first three items.

Do they look something like this?

1. Limp handshake.
2. Rarely made eye contact.
3. Awkward conversationalist.

Or, more like this:
1. Great smile.
2. Confident manner.
3. Asked great questions.

The difference between these two assessments can make or break a career. In today's fast-paced business environment, we often only get one chance to make a good impression on someone. At the same time, it's often very difficult to establish a positive connection in a short amount of time, especially if we're not "good" at small talk.

In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn't be judged on initial contact, but the truth is most people have summed you up in less than a few minutes. So, let's look at some ways to not only make that good first impression, but to engage the other person enough to help your career.

1. Look in the mirror. Really. Look in the mirror several times a day and make sure your hair is combed, there are no stains on your clothes (keep a stain remover at work or in a briefcase), and use mouthwash or breath mints, especially after eating or drinking coffee. It's often the small details that trip you up -- you can be wearing a $2,000 suit and if your breath reeks of garlic and your hair is standing on end, you've just wasted $2,000.

2. Shake hands firmly. I've had people shake my hand so hard they cracked my knuckles. I don't appreciate that any more than I do the half-hand, limp, lackadaisical shake. If you're not sure how to shake hands properly, find a car salesperson. Those people have perfected the art of the handshake and can teach you in no time flat.

3. Ask a question. Nothing is more awkward that someone asking: "How are you?" and you respond: "Fine." And then nothing. Ask a question that focuses on the needs and interests of the other person. Depending on the situation, you can ask about industry challenges in this economy, how they do their job, what professional organizations they find the most helpful or even if they use any social networking to help them get more business.

4. Edit the self promotion. People are worried about their jobs right now, and that's leading to some elevator pitches that are delivered with a sledgehammer. While you should promote yourself when you get the chance, an initial meeting can become very uncomfortable if you launch into your talents and abilities right away. A better way is to talk about other people who have helped you do your job, or to be successful with a project.

5. Don't blow your exit. Once you've established rapport with the other person, don't forget that your last impression is even more important. End your conversation by saying how much you've enjoyed the meeting, perhaps even making a final note of what you've learned: "I really appreciate the chance to hear your thoughts on how much going back to school helped you. It's something I'll be thinking about," you say, again offering your car salesperson handshake. By ensuring the person that you not only heard what was said, but really listened, you've made a strong first impression.

What are some other ways to make a good first impression and establish rapport?

Lijit Search


Anonymous said...

How to Win Friends and Influence People is the classic resource on this. Jibber Jobber had a post today on networking with a discussion on how introverts can handle it. I think your point about asking great questions hits the nail on the head. Introverts can be effective networkers and still be comfortable, simply by taking the focus off themselves and asking questions about others. Of course, the second part is you have to listen to the replies and ask follow-up questions, but people eat that up!

Anita said...

Thanks for the referral to the book and to Jason Alba's website. Both great ideas! I think that as we spend more time online communicating via e-mail, we have to work harder at keeping our interpersonal skills sharp, as well. Good reminder that people love it when they feel they are really being heard by not only our initial questions, but our follow-ups.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the most important things you can do (on top of those you already listed) is say the person's name. "Hi Anita, nice to meet you!" It's music to their ears, and saying it out loud will help you remember it. Don't overdo it, but do it more than once (when appropriate).

Also (this may sound a bit weird so I don't usually advise others to do it), whenever I meet someone new, I consciously think "I really like you" inside my head. I read somewhere that this will somehow come across to the person you're meeting. Not in a psychic-spooky way, but when you're thinking and believing that, you're body language (smile, etc.) will send that message for you. Make sense? Anyway, when the person you meet "gets" that message, it helps them to think the same thing about you (I really like you).

Anonymous said...

Good eye contact and a genuine smile go a long way also. Saying someone's name several times during the course of a conversation makes people feel good and will help you to remember their names. Finally, always having a business card to exchange is very important. Those who are not working might want to consider having a card made up with their personal contact information. My husband found this to be very useful during his job search.

Anita said...

Those are great suggestions, so thanks for adding them. And, I think I get what you're saying: Project positive energy toward that person, and they'll feel it. Sort of like standing up when you're interviewing over the phone, so that someone can "hear" your enthusiasm. I think you're right that it's got to be more than lip service if you really want to make a great impression.

Anita said...

Both you and Bonnie make a great suggestion about saying the person's name (especially for someone like me who has to really concentrate to remember a name!)
And, it's funny you mention the business card. Someone just complained to me the other day that he asked another guy for a card, and the guy told him his company didn't believe in them. Huh? I say everyone needs a card, whether they're employed or not.

thomsinger said...

While first impressions are very important, people spend too much time focused on "meeting" people.

Meeting a person does not make them part of your makes them A PERSON YOU HAVE MET.

The real power is in the follow up. How you take that meeting and build and cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship is where the power of a professional network resides.

While people should certainly follow your advice about 1st impressions, they should invest more time in developing a strategy for how to grow those 1st meetings into real friendships.

Anita said...

Thanks for pointing out the power of follow-up. You're right in that while first impressions count, turning the relationship into something more is even more important, especially given today's economic climate.

Anonymous said...

Beyond asking the right questions, what matters most to me is presence. I mean, being there, fully. Not absent minded, not waiting until it's over, not thinking about (or preparing) your next meeting, not worrying about the sales or anything you hope to get out of the meeting or whatever. Just, being fully committed to the thing at hand and engaged in the conversation. Good questions, although a starting point, unfortunately don't guarantee good conversation. Showing that you care, explaining your point of view, not being afraid of conflicting opinions, ... that's what will make for a great conversation. One that will be remembered.

Two years ago, I traveled for several hours in an uncomfortable VW minibus on bad Eastern European countryside roads. We came back from an automotive meeting in the Pitesti (Romania). Despite the noise and bumpy road, I had an intense discussion on the Semantic Web, Innovation Management, TRIZ, and a couple more things with one of the other participants. The conversation was so good we forgot about the road and everything. More than a year later, I met the same person again, and he said he'd love to have such a conversation again! That was the most positive sign of a lasting impression!

Anita said...

This is a such a valuable comment. How many times have your met someone, and the whole time they're looking around the room to see who else is around, or trying to check their Blackberry (they always think they're doing it discreetly)? I think we can all remember meeting someone that made us feel like we were the most important thing they had to do at that moment. As you said, they were completely present. Thank you so much for pointing out this very important aspect.

Anonymous said...

All of the suggestions make good sense for impressing strangers. In the final analysis, what we're talking about is being interesting--interesting questions, interesting ideas, interesting experiences, etc. Keith Ferrazzo has one of the best books on the subject, entitled Never Eat Alone. Although his book is about networking, he has a chapter on being interesting--and how to develop this skill--on of the few business publications that deal with this important subject.

Anita said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- that is a good book.
I think one idea not mentioned here is that you can often learn a lot by observing people who are great at engaging others. Listen to the questions they ask, watch their body language, etc.