Seven seconds or less. That’s all the time you have to make a first impression.
From studies where viewers saw a microsecond of political candidates and predicted who would win the election to studies measuring the impact of eye contact, first impressions are a well-dissected human interaction.
First impressions are strongly held, too, underscoring the importance of making a positive one. Luckily this need not add to your worries going into a sales meeting. Instead, try these smart tips from experts who have made it their business to coach others on making great first impressions.
1 Be Yourself
“Playing a character on TV is totally different from being the best and brightest version of yourself,” says Alexa Fischer, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, actress in television shows and commercials, and communication coach (www.alexafischer.com). “Salespeople have this sort of concept of how they’re supposed to be – they’ve got to be on. But in reality, it goes back to the golden rule. You do unto others how you would wish they would do unto you.”
Fischer says people should be aware of their “default face” and the message it sends. Is it a sour expression or naturally warm and pleasant? When entering a sales meeting or networking event, you can make a conscious choice to come from your most positive place. “A great first impression begins by staying firmly planted in Camp Positive – be your warm, open, engaging and authentic self,” she says.
2 No Negativity
Maybe you’re anxious about meeting a potential new customer. Whatever the origin of negative thoughts, take steps to overcome them because your mindset is obvious to others. “If you go in with that nervousness and insecurity that you have to get this sale, you have to meet your quota, forget about it,” says Fischer. “People can smell stress 100 yards away.”
Relieve negative thoughts by taking long, deliberate breaths or listening to relaxing music. Most importantly, focus on how you can be of service to others. When you do this, “all of a sudden, miraculously, the attention is not on you, your problems, your negative chatter and the pressure you feel,” she says. “You’re dialing into the other person and that’s what sets you free. When we can get out of our own way and stop being crippled by negative thoughts, we can go about life with so much more generosity and abundance,” adds Fischer.
3 Notice Nonverbal Communication
Two people can exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues in less than one minute, according to Patti Wood, sales trainer and author of SNAP – Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma (www.pattiwood.net).
Wood, who has studied first impressions and body language for 33 years, says the limbic or reptilian brain is busy processing emotional and sensory cues from gestures, body orientation, facial expressions, tempo, speaking rate and dress. It produces a high degree of accuracy and gives you that feeling in your stomach about whether or not you like a person.
Wood says people can learn to be skillful at both sending and reading body language. She coaches people in everything from walking to hand gestures to allow them to come across as persuasive, engaging and confident.
Her tips, based in science, include planting your feet firmly on the ground with weight evenly distributed. Square your shoulders since that communicates power. Keep your hands in view so it doesn’t look like you’re hiding. With knowledge and an awareness of your own body language “you can feel as powerful as you wish to be,” she says.
4 Match Their Voice
Listen to your customers’ “hello,” then match the tone, speaking rate and volume. Don’t go too loud and fast if they are going soft and low. Wood calls this approach dancing with your partner.
“Research says if you do that, then to them you sound like a friend – you sound safe,” says Wood. “That’s why we don’t like pushy or over-the-top salespeople because they’re not naturally in our rhythm.”
Wood studied smiling for the dental industry and found it actually changes the mechanics of your voice. “Smiling relaxes and lengthens your vocal chords so your voice has a more mellow and warm quality to it,” she says.
Even when a first impression occurs by phone, smiling still makes a difference. Also, don’t rush through a series of calls doing them all the same way.
“When you make a sales call, you should listen very intently to how they answer the phone,” she says. “They’re going to reveal their emotional state. Ideally we should match that emotional state.”
5 Get Feedback
How do you know how you come across? Ann Demarais, who holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from New York University and founded First Impressions executive coaching (www.firstimpressionsconsulting.com/pages/businesscoaching.html), says we all have blind spots. So ask trusted friends or your spouse for feedback. Ask them what you’re doing well and for at least one thing you can improve on. “It’s hard for people to honestly tell you the constructive stuff, so you need to open the door and say ‘I really want to learn,’” says Demarais.
A good time to pay attention to how you present yourself to new people is in more challenging social situations such as parties or networking events. If you notice you speak more than you listen, make a conscious habit to ask questions before you share.
Just like trying to learn a new golf swing, it’s hard to make many changes at once. So pick one trait to improve and work on it until it feels comfortable. “Personal development is a life-long journey, so take it one thing at a time,” says Demarais.
6 Lead With the Positive
Research shows that if you start a meeting by complaining about the jerk who stole your parking space, it reflects negatively on you. Demarais says we “mentally muddle stuff” so sharing a positive anecdote leaves others with a higher opinion of you.
“Whenever you speak positively or passionately about other people or things, those traits get reflected on you,” she says. “The very first things that people see or hear about you are more likely to be the way they will perceive you all the time.”
So begin with the positive and leave challenging subjects for later. Thankfully, if there are bumps in your future relationship, people will minimize them based on their positive first impression.
It’s a like a social gift to put others in a better mood rather than being a downer. It’s also key to first impressions since people remember more how you made them feel rather than the details of what you said.
“Making a good first impression is about being socially generous,” says Demarais. “It’s about putting other people’s needs first. So seeking to make them happy, to make them feel satisfied, to compliment them, to put them in a better mood, will ultimately be reflected in the way they see you.”
7 Dress for Success
“With first impressions, 55% is based on your visual, your clothing and your body language,” says Roz Usheroff, President of the Usheroff Institute and author of The Future of You! Creating Your Enduring Brand (usheroff.com).”Then comes your tone of voice, that’s 38%. And then 7% is content.”
Dress appropriately for the type of company and level of person. For example, you might wear a suit to a bank, but not a software company. If you’re selling an innovative product, don’t show up with an out-of-date hairstyle or eyeglass frames. Usheroff says it’s not about being pretty or handsome; it’s about presenting yourself in an appealing and approachable manner.
“You could deny that clothing counts, but it’s so impactful,” adds Usheroff. As such, when she pursued her first clients, she rode the elevator in their building at lunchtime to see how employees dressed. That sleuthing enabled her to arrive neither over- nor under-dressed for that environment.
She recommends using caution in showing a lot of piercings and tattoos. “People that are really cool and funky could still have a look of polish,” says Usheroff. “Just don’t look like you showed up after the weekend and didn’t change your clothes.”
Today, businesspeople often check each other out online before they meet in person. So, no beach vacation or glamour shots on LinkedIn.
Also, dress needs to be consistent. Usheroff says you can’t show up looking great for the first meeting and then slack off thinking, “'I’ve already got them.' You really have to reinforce – it’s branding.”
8 Small Talk Leads to Big Talk
“Your ability to really engage people with small talk, just for a few seconds, and the warmth of how you deliver your first impression is very critical,” says Usheroff. She suggests looking around the office to see if there is a simple way to start a conversation, such as a family photo.
“Try to make that little small talk without being invasive, to relax the person,” she says. Practicing what she calls “host behavior” also helps with small talk. “Imagine they’re coming into your home and you’ve never met them. How would you welcome them? How would you make them feel important?”
Begin the meeting trying to truly connect. Be polite. Ask where they’d like you to sit. Look at their business card and perhaps comment on how nice it is.
Reiterating a point often made in business articles, “People do business with people they like and feel they can trust,” says Usheroff.
9 Expect the Best
Even the most confident-seeming people feel self-doubt in meeting new people. So remember your strengths and the qualities your friends admire about you. “Go in with the expectation of being liked and then you feel more confident and you can have more self-awareness about areas where you might want to grow,” says Demarais.
While most people practice podium speeches, they may not prepare for meetings. Demarais recommends asking yourself the hardest question you could get in a meeting such as, “Why should I switch vendors?” or questions about price.
Play your answer into a recorder to make sure you came across in an upbeat and confident manner. Once you’ve faced the worst, you can expect the best.
10 Be Present
After you’ve done your homework, researched the customer’s business and practiced your pitch, you’re prepared so you can tune in to the present moment. Don’t try to wing it. Practice allows you to be grounded and calm.
“I’m a huge fan of letting go after you’ve done the proper preparation,” says Fischer “Then, just get in the world you’re in right now. We’re so distracted by our phones and distracted by our to-do list and we’ve got a million things swirling around in our brains.”
One way to get present is to really see your world. Look around and notice the color of the walls or people’s nametags. Anchor yourself in the time and place you’re in.
“Focus on them rather than yourself,” says Wood. “Don’t think about the next thing you’re going to say or how you look – just connect.”
Susan Thomas Springer is an OR-based contributor to Advantages.