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Make a strong first impression

You’ve heard the phrase “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” This is true in all areas of life, and in networking.

Do you know how much time it takes on average for people to decide whether or not they like you when first meeting you? Exactly seven seconds. In that tiny segment of time, people size you up, sift you, evaluate your capabilities and decide if they will ever do business with you.

In just seven seconds, people size you up and decide if they will ever do business with you

At a recent networking event, I met a young bookkeeper. She was professional, polished and articulate to a degree that caught me by surprise. She made a great first impression! Not only did I feel she was someone I would entrust with my books, but everything I saw and heard communicated the qualities that made me comfortable about referring her to others, even though I didn’t yet know anything of real substance about her.

In contrast, I met a business person at another meeting who looked like he was wearing the clothes he had slept in. His hair was a wild mess. He was disorganized and didn’t communicate clearly making it almost impossible to understanding his business. While I wasn’t judging him as a person and would gladly sit down with him for a burger and beer, virtually everything about him made me doubt that he was competent to do the work he claimed to be able to do.

These very different situations show the power of a first impression.

Three key elements

There are three primary elements that make up the impression people get when they first meet you. These include your appearance, your professionalism, and your body language.

Appearance

Your appearance consists of the clothes you’re wearing, your grooming and everything else that sets up your personal presentation. Some people work in business settings where jeans and T-shirts are appropriate. But if you wore those clothes to a business meeting, you’d be making a mistake because it would look to others as if you aren’t prepared to do business. You make a more powerful statement of business competence by wearing khaki slacks, a dress shirt or golf shirt (perhaps with your company logo on it), and dress shoes.

Equally important is your grooming. Is your hair clean and tidy? It makes a difference to people who meet you for the first time! In my business I meet a lot of graphic designers and web programmers, and they often fail to look after their appearance. The impression others get is that if you can’t be organized and disciplined enough to look after yourself, you are unlikely to be organized and disciplined in other areas of your life and work.

Professionalism

This consists of all the things that communicate your business capability to others. Do you have business cards? What do they look like? Business cards that are photocopied in black and white, or clearly designed by an unskilled person and printed on an inkjet printer convey a lack of sophistication that make people immediately doubt your ability. At the very least, people will doubt that you will still be there a few months from now to deal with future needs.

How do you communicate your business distinction? Can you clearly articulate in a few short sentences (the fewer the better) what makes your business different from the competition? When you talk about your business, do you communicate with passion and enthusiasm or do you seem bored by it all? People pick up on these things, so they will contribute powerfully to your first impression.

Body language

Just as important as your appearance and overall professionalism is your body language. Are you making eye contact throughout the conversation, or are you looking around to see who else is in the room? I’ve met high-level business experts who scan the room behind me while I’m talking. In response, I decide never to do business with them, even though they may have nailed their appearance and professionalsm qualities. They didn’t seem interested in me, because they were too busy looking for other opportunities! The logic is that if they are so uninterested in me now, what is the chance that they’ll be more interested in the future? In contrast, Jim Treliving of Boston Pizza, one of the busiest leaders I know and one of television’s “Dragon’s Den” business experts, makes each person he talks to the most important person in the room. The impression he makes is extraordinary because of these qualities. When you talk to people, give them your full attention.

What are your arms doing? Are they folded, which is often seen as a message of boredom, or do they communicate interest? Are you standing in a way that makes you open and accessible, or are you leaning against something or juggling a plate of food, sending the message that you’re currently busy? What does your facial expression say when talking with people?

Dr. Ivan Misner, founder of BNI, suggests that you take along someone you trust to a networking event and have them observe you to evaluate your performance in terms of body language. It’s important! When I was a young man, I worked in sales for business machines giant Pitney Bowes. They made use of sophisticated video systems to record sales presentations. Even though the training presentations weren’t real, our sales team learned a lot about body language and were able to correct many things we weren’t even aware we were doing.

The most important characteristic

Even more important than the elements already discussed is your willingness to offer help. Those who offer assistance to others are much more likely to make a powerful first impression. All you need to do is ask, “How can I help you and your business?” (and mean it). This is the essence of networking. In other posts I’ve talked about how networking is like farming. Your goal is not to do business that day but to create a long-term relationship that can lead to business opportunities down the road. By offering to help, you create a natural connection that will build trust and lead to a meaningful relationship.

Take a look in the mirror before your next networking event and just ask yourself the following three questions:

  • What message am I sending to those who are meeting me for the first time?
  • What opinions will they have of me before I get a chance to say anything at all?
  • What impression do they have of me and my business when I walk away after that initial meeting?
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Make a strong first impression

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