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First Impressions

First impressions can make or break you. Here is how to use them to your advantage.

By Ayo Mseka

Do you know that you have only 30 seconds to make a first impression on a potential client, referral or another professional?


Whatever happens during that brief period sets the stage for the entire relationship, according to Susan Fee, a licensed counselor, adjunct faculty member at several colleges, corporate trainer and business coach. “You’re either creating positive impressions that will open doors or negative impressions with untold consequences,” she stresses.

To help business professionals ensure that the first impression they make is a good one—one that will set the stage for a successful relationship, Fee has published Positive First Impressions: 83 Ways to Establish Confidence, Competence and Trust.

Here are a few of these tips and techniques that will help you make the first move on your way to creating a positive and lasting impression.

It starts with you

  • Raise your awareness about how your communication style affects others. The first step in making any change is taking stock of what you currently do that works and what does not. Some bad habits can be eliminated just by becoming conscious of them.
  • Take the initiative. Instead of waiting for others to form impressions of you, determine how you want to be perceived. What three descriptive words do you want others to associate with your name? Behave and speak in ways that are consistent with those words.
  • Share what you can do, not what you cannot. Whatever you focus on tends to expand. When you emphasize your strengths, they will grow and you will be associated with success.
  • Practice the platinum rule. Communicate with other people as they want to be communicated with, not based on your needs. Some people prefer just the facts, while others prefer more socializing.


  • Commit to listening, which is different from hearing. Listening is active and requires intent, focus and energy. Hearing is passive and requires no special skills.
  • Seek to understand first, and then respond. Judgement and criticism act as barriers to effective listening.
  • Respond to the speaker’s whole message. Emotions and feelings are most reliably conveyed through nonverbal communication, such as facial expression, eye contact and posture. If you interpret a person’s message based on his words alone, you will be missing half the message.
  • Develop a sense of empathy. Attempt to understand other people’s perspectives and world views by imagining yourself in their shoes.

Body language

  • Consider what you are communicating through your physical appearance. Do you look confident, competent and trustworthy? Clothing, hairstyle and grooming all count toward your personal message.
  • Match your words with your actions. When speech and body language are inconsistent, we believe what we see instead of what we hear. Actions really do speak louder than words!
  • Maintain an appropriate personal space. Between four feet and 18 inches is considered an acceptable distance for business situations and casual socializing. Standing closer than 18 inches is considered too intimate.

Words and phrases

  • Use positive directives to instruct other people. Explain what to do rather than what not to do. Positive directions are much easier to understand than negative ones, and you will come across as more positive as well.
  • Drop the word “try” from your vocabulary. The word “try” is a verbal escape clause that communicates to your listeners a lack of commitment on your part. Instead of trying to do your best, just do your best.
  • Demonstrate open-mindedness as well as flexibility by replacing the words “always” and “never.” Rarely are these words accurate descriptions of a person or situation. Better choices of words are “sometimes,” “often” and “occasionally.”
  • Acknowledge people who have helped you by saying thank you. Follow up with a handwritten note to really make them feel special.

Delivering your message

  • Speak at a rate of about 150 words per minute. Figure out your rate of speaking by reading 150 words of a book or article out loud and timing yourself. Slow talkers are thought of as boring and unintelligent, while fast talkers are often perceived as being dishonest.
  • Incorporate pauses. Pauses are verbal commas and are necessary to give listeners a chance to digest information they are receiving. Instead of uttering “um” between sentences, pause. Silence can be very commanding.
  • Captivate others with short stories and examples rather than with a bunch of facts. Listing too many facts at once can be boring and can sound pompous. Think “show versus tell” and you will help your listener put facts in perspective with far more significance.


  • Prepare and practice a 15-20 second introduction, including your name and what you do. Provide more than your job title or company name. Give people information that is easy to grasp and remember, so that they can respond and keep the conversation flowing.
  • Think of at least three topics you could bring up in conversation so that you are never without something to talk about. Ideas for conversation include books, movies, hobbies, business or socially related events.
  • Place name tags high on your right shoulder so that they are easily visible when shaking hands. Avoid placing name tags low on your chest, pocket or belt loop. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable for people to look there.
  • Assume the attitude that you are the host and take responsibility for approaching others rather than waiting to be approached. Make eye contact, smile and say hello to someone who is standing alone. He or she is probably feeling uncomfortable and will appreciate the company.
  • Reduce social anxiety by focusing on the other person. Showing a genuine interest in others encourages a reciprocal interest. The more you put your attention on the other person, the less you will think about your own nerves.

Phone and voice mail

  • Smile when you are talking on the phone just as you would in person. This adds warmth to your voice, which radiates through the line.
  • Update your voice-mail message daily with the current day and date. Remember to smile while recording it. Personalizing your message lets callers know there is a real live person on the other end who cares and who is dependable and organized.
  • Resist multitasking while on the phone. If a caller hears you typing away on the computer, talking to other people or eating, it sends the message that he is unimportant.

Building your reputation

  • Offer to make presentations. Public speaking allows you to maximize your impact by making an impression on a group of people instead of on just one person.
  • Use your email signature file to create a personalized signature that is attached to every message. Provide detailed contact information or a vision statement such as “Striving for Excellence, Every Day.”
  • Write letters of praise for good customer service. Send one of these letters to the manager of the company and a copy to the employee. Enclose your business card with the letter.
  • Print helpful tips pertaining to your profession on the back of your business card. This will give people a reason to hang on to your card.
  • Embrace excellence. There is no better way to promote your reputation as a confident, competent and trustworthy individual.


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