The art of making a good first impression

Seven seconds. That’s how long researchers at New York University say it takes for us to decide what we think of a person or a company. That means that the first seconds you meet a business contact are at least as important as the meeting afterwards. But how do you take control of that first impression?

”First impressions last” is a well-known expression, and according to Henrik Fexeus, mentalist and behaviorist, it’s really true. Fexeus has published several books about practical psychology and influence—and he points out the importance of making the right impression, right from the start. “You can always try to change your first impression afterwards, but it takes a long time and it’s never 100% successful,” he says.

So how do we best maintain a conversation with a new business contact? What is good to chat about if you want to have meaningful dialogue and create long-term relations? Fexeus has a good trick. “I like to say that all you need to do is ask a question about one of these three things: personality, motivation or feelings. For example, you can ask where the person comes from. If they say that they’re from Granby, but that they recently moved to Stockholm, you can ask, ‘How did that feel,’ rather than telling them that you know where Granby is. You can also ask, ‘I noticed that you were extra-interested in the first point we discussed in the meeting; is that something you’re involved with?’ That’s a perfect way to start a more personal relationship, maybe not right in the middle of a budget meeting, but ideally afterwards at the coffee machine.”

Calling the person by name is one of the details that have a significant effect in an initial meeting. “We love to hear our own names, because we’re starved for other people’s attention. These days we’re often caught up in social media, email and other things that compete for our attention. If you can give the visitor your full attention – call them by name, look them in the eye, listen and ask follow-up questions – you’ll make a good impression and it’s likely that they will want to meet you again.”

Fexeus’s best tip for remembering someone’s name is to think of an attribute linked to the person. “For example, if you’re going to meet someone named Stephanie, you can think of a stepladder. It might sound crazy, but trying to visualize an object linked to the name really does work. The next time you see that person, you’ll see that object in front of you, and that will help you remember the person’s name.”

Fexeus’s 3 best tips for taking control over your first impression

Another thing that’s important in a first meeting is that you decide beforehand what impression you want to give. “We have a tendency to simplify and label other people,” Fexeus explains. “Since a new person doesn’t know any-thing about you beyond the behavior they see at that moment, that becomes the basis of their assumptions about you. For example, if your first interaction with someone is to complain about the weather, that person may think that you’re generally a complainer, even though that may not be the case. So it’s important to think about the impression you want to give even before the meeting, and choose your topics of discussion, behavior and style of dress accordingly. Before I walk out the door, I usually do a thought experiment, imagining myself bumping into someone that I haven’t seen in 15 years. If that happens, I want to look and act in a way that makes me proud.”

Angela Ahola has a PhD in psychology. Her popular lecture “Would you buy yourself?” is about how difficult it can be to change the first impression of a person or a brand.
“I’d say that it doesn’t even take seven seconds, but really only a few milliseconds, before we know if we ‘click’ with another person or not,” she says. “We base that decision on two crucial questions. The first thing we ask ourselves when we meet someone for the first time is, ‘Can I trust you?’ And the other is, ‘Are you a warm person with your heart in the right place?’ Skills and ability come in third place, even in business contexts.”

Our ability to quickly determine if some-one is a friend or foe has been crucial for our species’ survival and is deeply rooted in us even today.
“As soon as we step into a new environment, for example a company, we draw conclusions about the brand,” Ahola says. “This isn’t just based on the atmosphere, but also on the people we encounter. Right there and then, we draw conclusions about whether the company has the qualities we need, even though we may not even have been introduced to the service or product yet.” Fexeus agrees.
“The first impression begins when you walk through the door. And the body language of the person you encounter is extremely important. It’s good to lean forward slightly when you meet someone, and in meetings with them. It shows that you’re interested, listening and want to help. That’s another recipe for success in making a good, reliable first impression.”