Make a good first impression: Expert tips for showing up at your best

December 6, 2021 - 16 min read

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What are first impressions?

First impressions matter: here’s why

9 tips for making a great first impression

Dos and don’ts of first impressions

How to recover from making a bad first impression

Did you know that a single glance at a person's face is enough to form a first impression? Research shows that it takes between just 33–100 milliseconds for someone to form judgments about your character.

Such a short amount of time is clearly not enough to accurately gauge a person’s character. But it’s only natural for us to make assumptions about someone when we first meet them.

We also get attached to our initial impressions of others and find it difficult to change our opinion. Even when presented with contrasting evidence.

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

Read on to learn why first impressions are so powerful and how to make a good first impression that will last.

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We form a not-always-accurate opinion about many of a person’s qualities when we first meet them. Some of the qualities we try to gauge include a person’s friendliness, honesty, trustworthiness, and competence.

A first impression becomes a filter that we use for all future interactions with that person. It can be very difficult to change someone’s first impression of us.

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First impressions matter: here’s why

First impressions last. Whether they are accurate or not, it normally takes a long time and concerted effort to change a first impression.

Because they are largely subconscious, first impressions are very persistent. Even in the face of contrary evidence. Because of our implicit biases and cognitive biases, we see the world and other people through our own set of filters and make decisions based on them.

All of your relationships are affected by the first impression that you make.

If people’s first impression of you is that you are friendly, competent, and trustworthy, they are more likely to feel comfortable around you. They are then more likely to consider you a friend and open up to you. 

People you meet are also more likely to remember you and recommend you to their friends and coworkers. Because of this, making a good first impression impacts your networking

This kind of social capital can have far-reaching effects on both your personal and professional life. Other people will spread their good opinions about you.

If the first impression that you create includes competency, this will instill confidence in others of your abilities and skills. They are more likely to trust that you can perform the tasks assigned to you and achieve the goals that have been set.

This can provide you with greater latitude in how you perform your tasks and achieve your goals.

On their own, each of the above is a good example of why first impressions matter. When you combine their effects, a good first impression becomes even more important. Creating a good first impression can generate a lot of personal power.

A good first impression also tends to provide opportunities. Potential customers would be more likely to become actual customers. Referrals through networking can result in new job offers. 

And a good first impression can improve our chances of promotion when you’re evenly matched on skills and experience with other applicants.

9 tips for making a great first impression

Now that we’ve covered why first impressions are so important, here are some tips to nail that first meeting.

1. Make eye contact

Eye contact is a nonverbal form of communication. Making eye contact is taken as a show of honesty and as a way of showing respect to the person that you are talking to. Maintaining eye contact also shows that you’re paying attention to the other person and listening to what they are saying.

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Try to make eye contact before you start talking, and maintain regular eye contact during your conversation. You do, however, need to know the difference between eye contact and staring someone down.

In her book, How To Talk To Anyone, Leil Lowndes recommends a 60/40 mix, with 60% eye contact being the ideal goal to indicate paying attention without aggression.

2. Smile

A sincere smile puts people at ease and makes people feel welcome.

A genuine smile reaches your eyes and creates an impression of trust and sincerity. If your smile reaches your eyes, it will be seen even if you are wearing a mask.

If you feel a tightening of the muscles around your eyes, you know that your smile shows in your eyes.

3. Dress for the occasion

What you wear greatly contributes to your first impression. Caroline Dunn and Lucette Charette of The National Research Council of Canada found that People are affected by your appearance, whether or not they realize it, and whether or not they think appearance is important.” 

In short, what you wear has consequences.

Make sure that your clothing is appropriate for the situation. Dressing too casually for a job interview is likely to create the impression that you aren’t serious about the job.

4. Be authentic

People can be remarkably quick to pick up on insincerity, so it pays to be yourself.

Constant worry about whether you are saying or doing the right thing often comes across as insincerity as well.

Being authentic means knowing your strengths and weaknesses and communicating them in a considerate way.

5. Be a good communicator

A good communicator listens more than they talk. A good guideline for this is to talk only a third as much as you listen.

Listening more shows that you are being attentive and lets the other person feel heard. 

As founder of First Impressions Ann Demarais points out, people always remember how you made them feel. If you communicate clearly and listen well, people will enjoy their interactions with you. 

6. Use positive body language

Body language is a large part of communication. Some basic guidelines for positive body language are:

  • Stand or sit up straight, and hold your head up. You will present yourself as comfortable and confident.
  • Avoid crossing your arms or legs. This subconsciously closes you off from the other person.
  • Offer your hand for a good, firm handshake that is confident but not crushing.

7. Be empathetic

Pay attention to the emotional well-being of the person that you are talking to.

Empathizing with someone can contribute to a strong connection. It demonstrates that you understand them emotionally.

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8. Do your research and come prepared

Doing some basic research can help you understand the context and environment that you will be in. 

It can help you dress appropriately and guide you to the formality of language that will be suitable. You may also discover information about other people you can use to start a conversation with them.

Preparing beforehand will make you feel more at ease and will also show that you are interested and focused.

9. Act confidently

Acting confident, even if you don’t feel brave, will create an impression of confidence. This appearance of self-assurance will contribute to a better first impression.

Dos and don’ts of first impressions

Here are some general customs to follow for a first meeting to ensure you make a good impression.

Don’t:

  • Be overbearing. This is often the result of talking too much and not listening enough. This creates the impression that you aren’t interested in the other person or what they have to say.
  • Interrupt when others talk. In many cultures, interrupting someone comes across as very rude. Not only does it communicate that you aren’t really listening, it often upsets the interrupted person.

It also creates the impression that you are more interested in hearing yourself speak and value your own opinion more than that of others.

  • Be constantly on your phone. Once in a while, we should all take a digital detox to overcome our device dependence. If you are constantly on your phone, you create the impression that you aren’t paying attention. It also communicates that you aren’t interested in the other person.
  • Try too hard. Trying too hard is often obvious and makes you seem insincere. It can create the sense that you are prepared to do almost anything to create a good impression, even if that means overstating your abilities.

Do:

  • Read the room. Taking a moment to read a room gives you time to gather yourself. It can also guide your behavior by providing contextual information about levels of formality and language style.

Other people will pick up on whether you are an effective listener or not. This will contribute to their impression of you.

  • Be optimistic. Being optimistic will contribute to a positive atmosphere. People enjoy being around optimists. A sense of cheerfulness will have a positive effect on the impression that you create.
  • Ask open and closed questions. Asking open questions shows that you’re interested and attentive. Asking closed questions shows that you focus on what’s important.

Here are some ideas for questions you can ask:

  • What led you to this career?
  • What’s the most exciting part of your job and why?
  • What’s one professional skill you’re currently working on?
  • Who inspires you?
  • Where did you work before this position?
  • Do you have any hobbies?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekends?
  • What’s something you’re proud of?

By asking a mix of open and closed questions, you show others that you have these skills, which builds a positive first impression.

How to recover from making a bad first impression

Overcoming a bad first impression can sometimes seem like an almost impossible task. 

It isn’t.

It just takes consistent effort and time. Below are some guidelines to get you started in overcoming a bad first impression.

Accept the bad first impression and identify where you went wrong

Only by accepting the bad first impression can you begin to identify where you went wrong. 

Self-awareness will help you identify what you need to do differently and why. Once you have identified where you went wrong (or what went wrong), you can take corrective action.

Admit your mistake and apologize if necessary

Admitting your mistake to yourself can often be the hardest part. But after that, admitting your error to others is easier.

Important to remember is that just because you made a bad first impression, it doesn’t mean it was always you or your fault. What is important is being able to identify what went wrong, not beat yourself up over it.

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Apologizing for your mistake (if necessary) shows that you are aware and interested in improving the person’s first impression of you. An apology can go a long way to overcoming a bad first impression.

Focus on the future

Don’t dwell on the bad first impression. Once you have accepted and admitted it, focus on the actions you are going to take to improve the first impression.

Dwelling on the bad first impression will only make it harder for you to recover from it.

Be consistent with your positive actions

It’s important to be consistent with your positive actions. Your consistency will show sincerity.

You also need to be consistent because, unfortunately, any lapse in your positive actions will reinforce the bad first impression.

Make your first impression count

A good first impression can provide many benefits. It offers you advantages, both short and long term, in your personal and professional life. 

The guidelines above can set you on the path to mastering the art of creating a good first impression. With attention to detail and practice, you can create an impression that lasts. For all the right reasons. 

For assistance and support in developing these and other skills, talk to our coaches at BetterUp. We’re here to help you excel.

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Published December 6, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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