The first interaction you have with someone can have a profound effect on the relationship, especially in a professional setting, where a new acquaintance can be a gateway to a new or better job. Making a good first impression (or not) can have an effect on your career.
Amy O’Donnell, a distinguished lecturer at the University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation, where she’s taught career development courses for more than 15 years, teaches her students an acronym for making a great first impression: BRAND.
Be interested, r esourceful, a uthentic, n otoriously grateful, and d iligent with follow-through.
It’s tempting to go into a first interaction with someone thinking about what you can get out of the meeting—an intro to a person you admire, a chance at a new job, recognition in your field or community—but O’Donnell points out that this isn’t the best way to make a great first impression.
“If you want to meet someone at a networking event or perhaps through a LinkedIn invitation, the introduction should never be about you or your needs. It should always be about showing interest in the person you meet. Ask interrogative questions to show investment in the individual and the relationship. It is only after trust is established that the relationship can shift to what the individual can do for you.”
What projects are you working on right now?
What’s a problem you’re trying to solve in your work?
What led you to choose your career or job?
What can I do for you?
If you’re at a networking event:
What did you think of the presentation/speaker?
How are you involved with [the organization hosting the event]?
Let’s talk about the importance of self-awareness in making a great first impression. “An acute awareness of how we are perceived is critical to our success and our ability to make a positive first impression in a professional setting,” O’Donnell says. “While there are many things in life we cannot control, our presence is one that is 100 percent within our grasp.”
Self-awareness can be developed simply by observing one’s own strengths and weaknesses: Are you a listener or a talker? Does your mind wander easily when others are speaking? Do you tend to stretch the truth (or even lie) when you want to impress someone? How comfortable are you making small talk?
Read more: How to Become More Self-Aware
O’Donnell emphasizes the importance of asking, what can I do for you? when making that first impression. Resourcefulness becomes important when you follow through on their response.
Especially if you’re early in your career, it may feel like you don’t have anything to offer your new acquaintance. So what happens when you ask the question, what can I do for you? and they say, can you tell me how to get more customers through my doors during the off-season?
If you’re a student, you have your school and its faculty at your disposal. If you’re not in school, you have your existing network plus the internet to help you answer the question. Ask for their contact information so you can follow up, and be resourceful in answering their question.
Social psychologist and Harvard lecturer Amy Cuddy has studied first impressions extensively. In an interview with Wired magazine in 2012, Cuddy explained that when we meet someone for the first time, we judge them on two factors: trustworthiness and competence.
She writes in her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges:
If someone you're trying to influence doesn't trust you, you're not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative. A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you've established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.
To make a great first impression: Be yourself. O’Donnell tells InHerSight: “None of us should attempt to be what we think an employer wants. If we cannot define our preferences, desires, and priorities, who are we? You can’t fake authenticity. Well, you can try, but true colors are hard to hide.”
Be notoriously grateful
Always follow up and thank your new connection, even if they haven’t given you anything yet. Thank them for taking the time to speak to you, for telling you about a job that’s opening up, or simply for answering some of your questions. A quick email will do, or a request on LinkedIn to connect with a brief note included.
According to a survey conducted by TopResume, almost one in five interviewers has completely dismissed a candidate because they didn't receive a thank-you email or note after an interview.
Be diligent with follow-through
“After that thank-you is written and sent, stay on your new contact’s radar by reconnecting in a reasonable amount of time,” O’Donnell says. “You will already be remembered if you say‘thanks.’ Now, take the relationship to the next step by finding a reason to reach out again.”
You can connect with the person on LinkedIn, but always include a message with your invitation. “Generic invitations are the kiss of death in networking,” she says.
In that message, or in an email, you might congratulate the individual for a recent accomplishment, ask about a recent project, or commend them for a media mention. A quick search of their name or a review of the company website should show you these.
And, of course, if they requested anything from you during your first meeting—your resume or help with a problem, for example—make good on that request.
“Show them how your prompt reply makes you worthy to join their network, and then foster that relationship,” O’Donnell says. Once you establish your interest in them, they will become more interested in you. Thus, begins the start of a beautiful networking relationship and a web of contacts that will expand.”
How to make a great first impression virtually
Many of the first impressions you make may be virtual—job interviews or informational interviews via Zoom or even digital networking sessions are common.
Here are a few tips for making a great digital first impression:
Download the software ahead of time and do a test-run
Make sure you have a clean backdrop—a clean room or a blank wall will do
Make sure the lighting is good—open the blinds or turn on a lamp
Position the camera as close to eye level as possible
Look at the camera rather than at yourself
What if you commit a faux pas when meeting someone for the first time?
It happens to everyone at some point. O’Donnell’s advice is to own it: “If you realize right away that you’ve made the error, be quick with your reply and recognition, and being authentic and honest about it.”
If you can’t save yourself in the moment, save yourself when you follow up. You might say something like, We met at last week’s fundraiser. I’m the one who put my foot in my mouth about the latest issue of The Herald . I hope you’ll forgive my impropriety.
And ultimately, don’t let an honest mistake or embarrassing moment prevent you from trying to save that connection. You never know, they might not have noticed at all.
Read more: The Case for Job Hopping
About our source
Amy O’Donnell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation, where she’s been for nearly 16 years, and teaches career development courses to more than 500 students every semester. She’s a self-proclaimed job search, branding, recruiting, interviewing, and networking enthusiast.