How to make the right first impression

How to make the right first impression: people conversing in a lobby

As a professional, you’re well aware that first impressions matter. How someone perceives you will affect the likelihood that he or she will trust and do business with you.

You’re also aware of the easy ways to make a good first impression: have a firm handshake, look presentable, smile and make eye contact. But having a positive impact isn’t easy when you’re under pressure. So, it’s worth thinking about a few communication and presentation techniques to make the right first impression.

Think before you speak

How you sound during a conversation significantly impacts the impression you create on the listener.

Recent research shows, for example, that political leaders with lower voices are perceived as more dominant and attractive. Conversely, those who speak with higher frequencies are viewed as submissive and benevolent.

‘Leaders have the ability to manipulate their voices in order to be recognised as dominant figures,’ says Rosario Signorello at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who led research into what makes a voice sound charismatic.

As a general rule, therefore, you should try to sound as relaxed and authentic as possible. Why? Because you’ll seem more trustworthy.

Speak with a natural tone at an animated, energetic pace to make the person you’re talking to feel more comfortable and more likely to form a favourable impression of you.

But it’s not always easy to sound relaxed when you’re meeting someone for the first time. If you are nervous, excited or anxious, it can affect your pace, pitch and tone. You might also find yourself distracted and unable to find the right words.

Be aware of how nerves and ‘performance anxiety’ impact the way you speak. If you hear yourself speaking too fast or jumbling your sentences, take a moment to breathe, ask a question and let the other person do the talking. Remember: ask open-ended questions and sharpen your listening skills for moments when you’re (literally) lost for words.

Convey trust and confidence

According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, people assess two things when they form a first impression of someone: their level of trustworthiness and competence.

It’s not easy to accurately assess someone’s competence the first time you meet them, but trust is easier to judge. In fact, when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within a tenth of a second, according to Princeton research.

How to make the right first impression: man and woman sitting at a table talkingConveying trust, Cuddy says, is the real key to making the right first impression:

“…There’s evidence that shows that trust begets trust. I know people find this very controversial but it’s true. If you are trusting, if you project trust, people are more likely to trust you.”

You need to project trustworthiness to make a new acquaintance feel comfortable around you. Here’s how:

  • Let them speak first. Giving the other person the floor will help them feel warmth towards you, because it shows that you care about what they have to say.
  • Ask questions. Getting the other person to share information about themselves builds a sense of trust and makes the conversation feel less formal. Try sharing appropriate personal information about yourself to encourage them to do the same.
  • Do your research. If you have time, do a bit of research about the person and find out if you have any common connections or interests. You might find they are a great foundation for a first conversation.

Be confident, but not dominant

While you need to project trust and warmth, Cuddy explains, it’s also important to appear confident and competent to make the right first impression.

Speaking clearly, calmly and confidently will help a new acquaintance gauge your competence. Maintaining good posture and watching your body language will help too.

Be confident but not dominant. Avoid unprofessional and aggressive behaviours like speaking over the top of others, not listening actively and rambling. Focus instead on making calm, steady eye contact, asking questions and giving the conversation your full attention.

Be the best version of yourself

When you’re talking over email or an instant messenger, it’s easy (and acceptable) to forego pleasantries in favour of brevity. But when you’re talking in person, good manners go a long way.

Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues at UCLA found that rudeness activates ‘pain regions’ in the brain, making people feel distrust towards others in conversation. Good manners, however, make people feel welcome and comfortable – vital for building trust.

How to make the right first impression: a businesswoman in conversationDon’t be overly formal, but instead try to come across as natural and relaxed, while showing respect for the other person and their time. Remember

  • Have a confident and relevant introduction about yourself – don’t leave the other person guessing.
  • Don’t interrupt while others are speaking, and show that you’re listening by maintaining eye contact and asking questions.
  • Use positive language and avoid swearing or making comments that others could misinterpret.
  • End on a high note. Make them feel that you are looking forward to working with them and emphasise how useful you’ve found the conversation.

It might seem old-fashioned, but good manners can go a long way towards making the right first impression.


First impressions are difficult and intimidating, but making the right one is important.

As always, be mindful of how you communicate. If you’re polite and convey trust, authenticity and confidence through the way you speak and act then you’ll be sure to make the right first impression and lay a solid foundation for a successful business relationship.

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