Discover how to impress—or totally blow it—in seconds.
That’s how long it takes to make a first impression, according to researchers at New York University.
And in that time, a person can make up to 11 initial judgments about you—enough information to completely decide whether he or she likes you or not.
The difference between being well-received or walked out on means combining a positive vibe with knowing what to say, so you can give an accurate portrayal of who you are and why people should like you.
It’s easy to write off the importance of that first encounter. But consider this:
So, your job is to make sure you don’t dig yourself a hole you can’t get out of.
When it comes to making the perfect first impression, it’s hard to overstate the importance of appearance.
In research conducted at Princeton University, subjects watched a tenth of a second of a clip of political candidates and then asked to predict the outcome of the election. Shockingly, they were right 70% of the time, despite having less than half a second to make a judgment.
Your job is to first think about what people will see and how it will be received, and then focus on what you will say. Don’t modify your behavior into what you think people want; being disingenuous isn’t the goal, but putting your best foot forward is.
The impression you leave starts before you even make your introduction. Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has done some incredible work showing that how you position your body—she actually calls it “posing”—can make you come across as more confident and likable. Striking a powerful pose, such as stretching out your arms and legs and puffing up your chest to make yourself appear bigger, causes hormonal changes that trigger brain chemicals that can make you feel and even appear more attractive. The power pose was shown to increase testosterone and lower cortisol, which is the perfect cocktail for confidence when entering a room.
You must also make sure your body and clothing back up this image.
If you’re going into an interview, a suit is almost always the best way to go. Meeting your girlfriend’s parents? Go with a blazer over a button-down and jeans. But in reality, what you wear isn’t as important as how you wear it. It’s more important that you have something that fits well and if you pay attention to the small details.
A $300 suit that’s tailored to fit perfectly will look better than the $2,000 designer suit that’s fresh off a mannequin.
These are the characteristics of a person in control. And the more you feel in control of your presence, the more that confidence radiates when you make your introduction.
If there’s one rule you should be absolutely sure not to break, it’s this:
A simple way to do this is to make sure you’re asking questions rather than talking about yourself.
Here’s the truth: most people start by feeling a need to prove their own worth, and so they talk themselves up at every opportunity. But research shows that people who ask questions are more likely to be viewed favorably. Let’s talk about why that is. In addition to wanting to prove themselves, people talk tend to discuss what they know, and what they like. Which means, them.
If you know people, then you’ve probably realized by now that for most folks, no subject is more fascinating and entertaining to them than talking about themselves.
By asking questions, you provide a structured and valid forum for them to do just that. At the end of a 10-minute chat, your conversational counterpart walks away feeling great about his or herself–and that internal feeling will result in an outward positive feeling about you.
In addition to asking questions, be memorable when you need to answer those that are put to you. When filling out a résumé, it’s not just the best credentials that lead to an interview, but also the most memorable responses.
For example, I have a great friend named Josh, whose stacked resumé includes everything from playing semi-professional soccer to working in a cancer research facility to completing his MBA at one of the most prestigious business schools in the country. But when he goes in for job interviews, the first question he’s asked is not about any of that. Instead, he gets asked about whiskey.
On a whim, Josh one day decided to add bourbon to the “other interests” section of his resumé. It’s a passion of his, and he knows a lot of about it. And from that day on, every single interviewer has asked him about bourbon, and asked Josh for recommendations. Every one. This little factoid makes him stand out from the field. And only after the conversation about whiskey has run it’s course do people tend to delve into the rest of his qualifications.
[[Update: For those interested, Josh was offered every job he was interviewed for, and accepted one recently–the most coveted position at his dream firm.]]
Standing out is hugely important, especially for a perfect first impression. Researchers from Oregon State University found that expressive and animated people tend to be more liked than people who are hard to read.
But if you’re not much for showmanship, don’t worry. You can stand out in other ways. Opening doors for others or standing up any time someone enters a room are more likely to leave people with a positive impression, as will the easiest things in the world: saying please and thank you.
I can tell you from personal experience that nothing helps you stand out like good manners. I’ll give you an example from my personal life…
From a very young age, I was taught to stand up anytime a woman leaves or approaches the dinner table. As a result, I do this nearly automatically, and have for as long as I can remember. Which means I have done it on every date I’ve ever been on. And every single woman I have ever dated has commented on it.
Moreover, at any group dinner I’m at, it becomes a topic of conversation. “Do you always do that?” “Why do you do it?” “Was your mom really big on manners?” “Do you really always do it?”
They’ll turn to my date and ask, “Does he really do that for you every time?” and seem both surprised and impressed to hear that, yes, I do indeed stand up every time she leaves or approaches the table. Every time.
The reaction has always been interesting to me, and the discussion is always revealing. I need to be clear that I do not do this for attention; I do it because it’s polite and how I was raised.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it has been a huge asset to me, simply because it’s unusual and stands out.
As you talk, make sure you smile a lot, use the person’s name, look into his or her eyes, and never make assumptions about what they say or what information you share. That last part is essential.
When you’re talking about yourself, it’s easy to come across as somewhat pompous. For example, let’s say you graduated from an Ivy League school; while this generally viewed as a very positive, mentioning it in first encounters can oftentimes a kiss of death. In job interviews, a non-Ivy boss could view it as threatening. On a date, it could come off as pretentious or stiff.
You can’t change who you are, but you can be aware of how others perceive your characteristics so that the delivery of your personal info is done in a manner that leaves everyone feeling good. If you know of a stereotype of Ivy League people, crack a joke about it to ease the tension. If you’re aware that your last company had a certain reputation, play off that. Don’t let there be an elephant—literal or figurative, still all bad—in the room.
In the end, your job is really just to be yourself—but in doses. You should talk to everyone like a friend, just not like your best friend or even a family member who’s learned to take your good with your bad.
So, know your audience. Research on social media has shown that when you overshare people become annoyed or stop following you completely. Life doesn’t play out on Facebook, but it’s still a good lesson: your first impression is how you want people to remember you on your best day. Save the edgier aspects of your character for later.
What happens when you field your first interaction like a butter-fingered English mid-off? All hope is not lost. If you know you dropped the ball, here’s how to recover before it’s too late.
First impressions are snap decisions, but there’s still time to change a person’s opinion once it’s been formed. Start by actively pursuing a second chance.
This might seem obvious, but according to researchers at Stanford University, when you know you’ve made a bad first impression, your natural reaction is to avoid that person. So whether it’s asking for another date or requesting a follow-up meeting with your boss, know that you have extra work to do.
Once you’ve opened the door for another change, don’t act as if nothing happened: admit that you blew it. Incorporate some self-deprecating humor to show that you’re not afraid to admit your mistakes.
When you point out your flaws, you not only show confidence, you also balance the playing field, because all people know that they have areas of weakness. If you’re open to talking about your own flaws, they’ll be more likely to accept them and see what else you have to offer.
The “halo effect” is a psychological principle that states that one positive trait can lead to the perception of other positive traits. Accentuate your best attributes. Maybe it’s prior successes you’ve had (to impress your boss) or it could be how adventurous you are (to intrigue your date or fellow colleagues).
No matter what, if you can pinpoint some of your good stuff in an honest fashion, you’re more likely to trigger thoughts that can reverse your initial poor review.Note: A version of this article was co-written by Adam Bornstein, and previously published on MensFitness.com.