How to Make a Great First Impression

Obvious news flash: First impressions matter.

Making a lasting impression isn’t necessarily hard, but you don’t want that lasting impression to be of you with sweaty hands, mumbling and being your least-best self. When it comes to making a first impression in a situation that could make or break your future, you’re going to get nervous. Unfortunately, that often flips some internal switch that turns you into a hot mess.

The default response for many people is to try to act as socially appropriate as possible. Having manners is great, but being a robot is not appropriate in this situation. You don’t have to be mechanical or fake being a loud social butterfly to make a great first impression. You do have to be authentic and dare yourself to open up, but a little advice never hurts.

1. Practice Active Listening

You don’t want to zone out or be the silent person who nods along to everything that’s said. Instead, practice active listening to truly engage with your contact.

Let your body and words respond to what’s being said. Don’t cross your arms or legs. At appropriate breaks, reiterate points the other person has said using your own words. Express empathy and understanding. Add your thoughts or points of contention to build an interesting conversation.

2. Find Common Ground

As you practice active listening, you may find you have common interests and opportunities to ask additional questions. Did this person see the game last week? Do they have children? What’s their favorite music or television show?

You learn much about a person through day-to-day interests and activities. Discussing common interests builds rapport between two people. Even if there are points of disagreement, find the root of a cause or issue you both care about. The fact that you can have a civil and interesting debate leaves a positive and lasting impression.

3. Be Aware of Your Tone of Voice

A high-pitched intonation may make you appear immature or uncertain of yourself to others. Be careful of “uptalk,” or a rising lilt at the end of your sentences. Research has revealed that a rising intonation is perceived by others as less informed, regardless of the depth of content discussed.

Interestingly, those who have a faster rate of speech are considered more confident. That doesn’t mean that the faster you talk the more confident you seem, though, so keep an even, upbeat rate that’s easily understood. If you’re talking fast, speak clearly. Let your passion for what you’re saying show. Be careful of filler words, such as “um” and “like,” which distract from the meat of the topic.

A helpful idea is to practice talking with a friend you’re already comfortable with, or record yourself going over topics you’d like to discuss with others. Notice your inflection. Do you seem nervous? Are the words you’re saying clear?

4. Be Aware of Your Body Language

You may have noticed that you often mirror body movements and hand gestures when you’re in an intense conversation with someone. When you do this, you’re physically empathizing with them.

Body language is now revealed to influence one’s ability to produce creative ideas and teach others. People moving synchronously are shown to produce more collaborative ideas. As body is linked to mind, the reverse is also true: Your body language also affects your state of mind and consequently your ability to make a great first impression.

There are ways to improve your nonverbal cues and responses. You shouldn’t copy another’s body language, but instead respond with your own. Uncross your legs, or if you must cross your legs, do not put your leg between the two of you. Avoid forming barriers.

Let your posture reflect your open state of mind to receiving what is being communicated. When you lean on an elbow, make eye contact. Lean in, but don’t invade personal space. Nod sometimes to reinforce acknowledgement. Empathetic body language will follow naturally.

5. Word Choice Matters

Everyone has endured a boring lecture or conversation at some point, where the person speaking seemed completely disinterested in their own topic. Don’t be that person.

Your word choices matter when you want to make a great first impression. You know to avoid filler words, but you should also avoid words that disempower your topic. Don’t be vague. Be direct and use positive, persuasive language. Your words should express how you felt in the situation, and remember: anyone can be a dynamic storyteller.

If you want to improve your skills, look to these TED Talks for help.

6. Dress for Yourself and Appropriately for the Event

A large part of making a good first impression, whether you like it or not, comes down to appearance.

Dress neat and clean.

Learn about what the dress code will be and meet it with your personal style. Accessories will show off your personality where a dress code may otherwise restrict individual expression. While you may be attending a simple barbecue, a collared shirt or simple sundress may make you stand out in a fashionable way.

7. Be Yourself

Faking it until you make it will only get you so far. Choosing to see the positive, smiling and speaking up are helpful to trigger your mind and body to get into the right mood. However, continuing to fake a persona to make a great impression comes off as disingenuous, and others may notice when you’re not being yourself. One third of people can tell the difference between a fake laugh and a real laugh. There’s more breath and rhythm, it turns out.

You may think you’re weird or have completely different interests than others you’re going to be around. That’s not often the case, as you may think. Sometimes, it takes opening up for others to open up, too.

8. Be Personable, but Don’t Reveal Everything

There is a such thing as saying too much. Keep in mind that you’re meeting someone for the first time. You can discuss common interests while relating and building rapport, without getting into venting about an ex for a whole hour.

Keep the conversation appropriate and moving forward, until you’ve had more time with the person to develop that level of trust. Besides, you’re too cool and multi-layered to know completely with just one meeting! Duh!

9. Know Your Audience Well

Knowing your audience is a marketing core concept, and discussions around making a great first impression often talk about “selling” yourself. Forget marketing and selling yourself. Yet, there’s still a valuable truth found in this concept.

Who are you talking to? What do you know about them? Some of this information may be gathered early by researching the type of event you’re going to, browsing social media and generally observing before participating in conversations. Knowing your audience comes with research and exposure. Listen, gather knowledge and share your own wisdom to build rapport and make a great first impression.

10. Follow Up

At any social or professional event, there’s bound to be many people mingling and vying for conversation with certain individuals. If you really want to talk to one person, your time may be limited. That’s okay. Be sure to pass on your contact information, or ask for theirs. Then, follow up!

Write a nice email. Send a brief text. Or, do what many don’t do these days and write a thoughtful handwritten note. Highlight something powerful or funny that you retained from your exchange, and indicate you’d like to get this individual’s thoughts on another matter. Suggest a coffee meetup.

Persistence does pay off, but don’t be annoying. Give the individual a few days or weeks to respond.

Making a great first impression isn’t about faking it until you make it or being a social butterfly. Be yourself. Getting to know your audience ahead of time, practicing active listening and asking questions are just a few ways to build a rapport and capture the attention of whomever you’re talking with.

Breathe deeply and let your true self shine brilliantly! People will take notice.

And while you’re here, keep the conversation going by commenting, sharing and subscribing to Punched Clocks!

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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