How to make a good first impression and why it's worth all the effort

How to make a good first impression and why it's worth all the effort | Jennifer Spoelma

First impressions - a concept we all know so well. Just thinking about making a good first impression probably brings on feelings of stress and anxiety. The situations that create first-impression scenarios tend to be high-stake already. It’s no wonder we feel pressure at the thought of needing to appeal to others when we’re already nervous.

These are some of the most common situations we need to make a good first impression for:

  • First dates

  • Job interviews

  • Meeting a significant other’s friends or family

  • First time attending a new group/team activity

  • Networking events

Now, some might say, “Forget about a striving to make a good first impression. If they can’t accept me for who I am, they don’t deserve my attention.”

But I would disagree with them. I believe making a good first impression is worth all the effort. Adding attention and discipline to how we enter a room, the posture we hold, the eye contact we make and how we treat others will pay dividends in the long run. Both personally, and professionally.

First impressions are formed immediately

First impressions start before you even introduce yourself. They are formed by the non-verbal cues you’re giving off the moment you walk in the door and someone sees you.

You might read that and think, “Judgement and stereotyping, that’s what’s happening.” And you’re definitely partially correct. People do tend to make snap judgements and put people into broad boxes to quickly make sense of a new situation.

However, I’d caution the cynicism in that expectation of people.

If you expect to be judged, sidelined or to ‘not fit in’ in a group, chances are that’s what you body language will portray. You have a greater likelihood of making a first impression of being cold or disinterested, which certainly will affect how others choose to approach you.

While it may be true that you might be stereotyped based off of what you’re wearing, what you look like, your ethnicity, etc. YOU have the ability to override all of that with the presence you bring into the room.

Only you can set the tone for your own presence

Developing a mindset of personal responsibility has been a life-changing practice for both my personal and professional life. Essentially, personal responsibility means that you take ownership for every situation you’re in.

  • If a conversation is derailing and getting heated, taking ownership means taking deep breath and calmly re-focusing or asking for a break. Even if it means foregoing the please of being ‘right’.

  • If you show up to an event alone, taking ownership means you are going to seek people out and introduce yourself. Not leaving and feeling defeated that know one came up to you, first.

  • If you’re calling a meeting with colleagues, taking ownership might mean creating an agenda and keeping people to it. This means taking responsibility for the task to be completed and respecting everyone’s time.

  • If you’ve been wanting to go on more dates with your significant other, taking ownership means starting to plan some of those dates.

  • If you are starting to feel overwhelmed by work/school/life responsibilities, taking ownership means you ask for help, delegate, or institute some boundaries before anxiety gets the best of you.

It’s taking action on the things you want. But it’s more than that, too. Taking responsibility is believing that you have the power and ability to create the outcomes you want.

That’s the life-changing part.

So when it comes to first impressions, we need to take responsibility for how we come off to other people. It won’t help us to make excuses, or to blame others for a not-so-smooth first impression.

We want to create an environment around us that radiates positivity, acceptance and trustworthiness. Within those boundaries you can bring your own spice, personality and perspectives. You stay YOU, just aware of how you is coming off to others.

Why is this so important? Because first impressions stick like glue. And they forge the ground longterm for either understanding or misunderstanding.

The primacy effect and why first impressions stick like glue

It takes a lot of energy to “undo” a bad first impression or misunderstanding. It may not seem fair or rational, but it’s how our brains work unless we intentionally override them.

This has a lot to do with a phenomenon called the primacy effect.

The primacy effect is when a bias is formed based off of a first impression. Let’s consider the example of a job interview. If you show up on time, dressed well and with a positive, confident persona, likely the interviewer will form a develop a positive first impression of you.

This works as an anchor. Essentially, you have the benefit of the doubt at this point. If you keep answering questions well and staying calm and confident you will likely receive a high rating for your interview.

If, on the other hand, you start to show lack of knowledge or an inability to answer the questions posed to you, or if you say something offensive, etc. your performance rating will suffer. Each of those bad impressions will work you away from your original anchor of a positive first impression.

Humans can often use past performance to predict future performances. A study about the primacy effect and the significance of first impressions looked at how people interpreted test scores as a sign of intelligence and capability.

They found that out of a group of people who scored exactly the same on a given test, those who got more answers correct at the beginning of the test were seen as more capable than those who got more right towards the end of the test. Even though the final score was exactly the same.

The study demonstrated that early impressions will outweigh impressions that come later.

How to make a great first impression

Create warmth with your personality

I’m intentionally staying away from words that describe a personality like bubbly, outgoing or funny. Because I don’t believe those things are necessary to make a good first impression (even though that’s common perception people have).

You can bring your true self to the table and intentionally create warmth at the same time. This means showing interest in other people, smiling and being willing to share information about yourself. The goal is to be a friend, no matter who it is you’re meeting.

Bring positivity to every situation

I’m not suggesting you sugar-coat or be pollyanna-ish, but practice being positive. I say practice because man oh man, it is a discipline to stay positive! It’s not common to be positive these days. Most people walk around pessimistic and overwhelmed.

So I promise, if you work on cultivating genuine positivity, you will see *positive* changes in how people respond to you.

Remember you can shift at any time

Just as primacy effect exists, there is another psychological phenomenon called recency effect. This is when our most recent interactions with people form a bias in our minds about them. While it’s not as strong of an effect as the primacy effect, it’s a helpful tool to be aware of.

If you do make a mistake or something you say comes out wrong in a high-stakes, first impression situation, take a breath. It’s not all over yet. You can recover. Trust yourself enough to give yourself a second chance, and likely others will, too.

What tips do you have for making a good first impression? Or, do you have a story to share about how you’ve overcome a bad first impression?