Improving Our First Impressions

Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age and class to me through what you are wearing - and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, desires and current mood. I may not be able to put what I observe into words, but I register the information unconsciously; and you simultaneously do the same for me.
- Alison Lurie

With the festivities of Halloween approaching, costumes have been appearing in storefronts. As I prepare for the trick or treaters to arrive at my door, my thoughts turn to the costumes we wear everyday. Whether we are opening our door to ghosts or sitting in a meeting with business people in suits, we all use first impressions to set a tone for our interactions. The key is to think about the people we are going to meet and use the first impressions we make to our best advantage.

Here are four basic components to a fantastic first impression.

What to Wear ~ Earlier this week I had the pleasure of presenting a professional protocol seminar as part of a university career fair. I was surprised to see such a wide range of outfits as students met with recruiters. There were students who, without the requisite backpack, could easily pass for business executives. There were students who looked like they were playing dress-up, wearing their interview suits for the first time. There were students who clearly upgraded their dress for the day, but opted out of wearing a suit. And then there were students who looked as if they had just rolled out of bed. As part of an exercise, I asked students to watch the door of the career fair and asked -- based just on what they saw -- who would they hire? Students in suits were chosen time and time again.

Before you leave your home, you should be thinking about where you are going and what you should be wearing. This does not mean you always need to leave the house looking like you stepped off the cover of a magazine. Different outfits are appropriate for different occasions. Consider your attire as a costume for playing your part.

Proper Posture ~ We can say so much without saying a word - it is all about body language. Are you open to meeting new people? Do you make eye contact with others? Is your body stance open or closed? When clients ask me how to choose someone to first approach when making small talk, I encourage them to watch the other person's body language. Look for someone who is standing up straight and will meet your gaze. I know I sound like your fourth grade teacher, but proper posture is not only better for your back, your digestion and your breathing; proper posture is also better for making a good first impression. Your shoulders should be up and back, arms at your side, and your head up for good eye contact. Remember, in the American culture, lack of eye contact connotes lack of confidence and possibly a shifty character.

Appropriate Attitude ~ Frequently life takes on the Pygmalion effect. If we dread going to an event, it takes us much longer to warm up once we are there, whereas if we are determined to have a good time, we will. People often laugh when I tell them they should approach new people with a smile. It seems like the most obvious advice in the world, but judging from some of the frowns and scowls I have seen recently, it bears repeating. After all, would you rather speak with (or do business with) someone who is smiling or someone who is frowning? A positive attitude and upbeat demeanor can open doors.

Monitor Your Mouth ~ The last piece of making a good first impression is what you say. At a party this past weekend I was cornered by a woman who took my "how are you?" much too literally. She gave me a rundown of how her adult children ignore her and began to describe a variety of medical ailments only her doctor should have known before I was able to make a gracious exit. In addition to the conversation topic, your tone of voice, and the words you use are also important. We can all think of times when some one said "have a nice day" with such a flat or sarcastic tone it was clear that while the right words were there, the meaning was less than sincere. While a heartfelt "thank you" can speak volumes.

Whether job seeking, shopping, or socializing, keeping these four tips in mind will help you to make a good first impression.

Manners matter, but safety first this Halloween!! Happy Haunting ~