Sometimes I think I’m the shyest person on the planet. Back in the days when I was interviewing for jobs, I had a sad tendency to work myself into a tizzy about whether I was going to make a good impression. Over the years, I’ve done my best to calm down about introductions, by focusing on what I can do to improve my odds. I’ve found that thinking about what I can do can at least distract me from the worries I might have about a situation.
Even if a person isn’t shy, a first meeting can be stiff. It can be hard to come up with conversation. It is important, though, to make the effort to relax in these situations. Whether or not you want to worry about impressing your new friend or client, doing it during a conversation makes it even harder to talk. You’ll either make that good impression, or not. Don’t worry about it during the process — that’s what before and after are for.
Relaxing just a bit can be enough to make you look sure of yourself, as well. It can help you firm up that handshake, which can be the first part of a first impression. If you’re really experiencing some difficulties with being comfortable speaking to people who are essentially strangers, though, the best recommendation I’ve had is to work on my public speaking in general. Groups like Toastmasters can provide a lot of help in improving speaking abilities, as well as just getting people more comfortable with talking in general.
Any pre-planned introduction is a chance for you to make the best possible introduction. It’s also a chance for you to associate yourself with certain ideas. Consider job interviews. For most of the interviews I’ve had, it’s been the first time I’ve met somebody from a particular company. I go in, knowing that I want my interviewer to leave our meeting thinking I’m the best person for the job. So, I make a list of reasons I really am the best person for the job. I take the time to discuss them. If, for instance, I want to show that I have a particular skill, I’ll mention specifics of projects that I’ve worked on, using that skill. I take full advantage of the time I have to plan ahead for a meeting.
If you know that you’ll be meeting someone new ahead of time — whether attending meetings or going on a blind date — try thinking of some connections you might have with that person ahead of time. It might be obvious: “Our mutual pal Sarah set us up tonight.” You may have to dig a little deeper, though. Once you’ve got it, though, you already have an automatic conversation ready to go just by asking questions about the connection: “How long have you known Sarah? Let me tell you about how she and I met!”
Even tangential connections, like rooting for the same local sports team, can give you an edge up in an introduction. Rather than being John Doe who I met at the same party I met fifty other people at, you can be John Doe who I’m going to have to educate about why my team is so much better. It doesn’t seem like much, but it can be enough to guarantee that a person is going to want to rekindle the conversation down the road.
Dress the Part
It would be nice if we all went around fresh out of the shower and perfectly dressed. It’s never going to happen, but it would be nice. There’s always the chance that you’ll have a chance meeting in that t-shirt you painted the living room in. That’s just life. However, we do what we can to minimize those situations.
I’ve tried to eliminate some of those really awful outfits out of my closet — the stuff with unmendable wholes and such. I’ve even managed to mostly make it past the college mentality that it’s okay to wear my pajamas out and about. I’m not saying that we should all throw out those old, beat-up, comfortable clothes — I’m just saying that it’s probably best not to where them while running errands or going out for coffee. Leave the pajamas at home.
That great first impression won’t mean anything if you never get the opportunity to make a second impression. It’s up to you to keep in contact, whether you had an interview or just met a person casually. Some situations may be ideal for a thank you note after the fact — but if a thank you note is too formal an email or phone call can work just fine. Make a point of being specific in your follow up: answer questions you may not have been able to respond to during your initial meeting, make a recommendation based on your discussion, or otherwise refer back to your meeting.
Lastly, I’m of the opinion that making a good impression is far more important than making the best impression. While there’s a chance that a person will remember all the great first impressions he’s had over the years, there is an absolute guarantee that he will remember the worst impressions he’s seen. People don’t tell stories about nice people they meet at parties, after all: they start with “You’ll never believe the weirdo I met last week,” and go downhill from there. A lot of risks you might consider for making a lasting impression can easily backfire, so consider carefully if you need to be that far beyond the rest of the pack.