How to make a great first impression

Project friendliness and a sincere interest in the other person.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

A lot can ride on a first impression. Think of all the times you meet someone new over the course of a career: interviewing for jobs, meeting your co-workers in your first weeks at a new job, finding contacts at conferences, and meeting for the first time with new clients or customers.

Making a good first impression during these meetings can go a long way to boost your career. At the same time, making an awkward impression can hurt it. 

That's because people tend to lean heavily on their first impressions to assess and judge others, said Ann Demarais, a New York-based career consultant and co-author of First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You.

"The way we see someone the first time is the way we think they are always," Demarais said. "People take in a small bit of information about you and project it."

Here are some pointers on how to leave a positive impression:

  • Be on time. If you have a time set up to meet an individual, make sure you're there on time or a bit early.

    Showing up late sends the message that you didn't care enough about the meeting or person to plan sufficiently, said Adam Blitz, CPA, owner of the accounting practice Streamline CPA in Fresno, Calif.

    Blitz, who spoke at the 2017 EDGE Experience in New Orleans, said he has set up interviews where potential hires haven't shown up or made excuses about being late. They didn't get a second chance, he said.

    "You're not going to come back from that," Blitz said about tardiness.

  • Smile and sit up straight. Body language is incredibly important in first meetings, Demarais said.

    "Even before you open your mouth, the way you carry yourself is going to tell a story," she said.

    That means having a firm, but not gripping, handshake. Also, make sure you have good posture when standing or sitting. Slouching sends a message of insecurity.

    Be sure to smile, and try leaning in a tad to show interest in the discussion, Demarais said. Most importantly, make eye contact with the person you're talking with, to convey your interest in what they're saying.

    Often, people don't realize that they're not making adequate eye contact. Demarais recommends asking a trusted friend or colleague about your interactions and their impressions of your body language.

  • Listen closely. One of the best ways to make a good impression is to pay close attention to the person you're meeting, said Demarais. 

    Everyone likes to receive attention, and those who take the time to engage and listen are often more successful at making a good impression. Don't dominate the conversation with tales about yourself, Demarais said.

    Concentrating on someone else also helps dispel nervousness, she said. Instead of thinking about your own anxieties, focus on making the other person feel comfortable. That could be as simple as asking how a person got into accounting, or what type of projects he or she finds the most rewarding. Just try to go beyond basic small talk and pay attention to the answers, she suggested.

  • Spark a conversation. One of the easiest ways to get noticed is to ask engaging questions that lead to fruitful discussions, said Tim Jipping, CPA, CGMA, senior manager at Plante Moran in Chicago.

    Jipping, who spoke at the 2017 EDGE Experience in New Orleans, finds that his clients are typically eager to talk about themselves and their business.

    But don't ask about basic information you could have looked up on your own.

    Instead of asking what type of widget a client makes, ask how most people use the product or if there are regional differences in sales, he said.

    "Never be afraid to learn about [clients'] businesses from them," he said. "They're more than willing to share."

    If you're headed into a networking event or similar type of mixer, try to spend some time ahead of time looking up casual conversation topics, Demarais said.

    She suggested looking at news sites for quirky tidbits about quirky news or interesting scientific breakthroughs. She also suggested leaving political topics alone, to avoid inadvertently offending a new contact.

  • Know whom you're meeting. Doing research ahead of an interview or important client meeting is a must, said Mel Weinberg, CPA (inactive), founder of St. Louis's Accounting Career Consultants.

    He recommends spending time looking at individuals' social media profiles on platforms like LinkedIn, as well as looking at their employer or business's corporate filings and news articles about the company and industry.

    "You want to know as much as you can," Weinberg said.

  • Follow up to make the impression count. If you've managed to make a good impression, don't stop there, Jipping said. A good impression doesn't mean anything unless you connect with the person again.

    He encourages people in his office to follow up successful meetings by planning their next meeting.

    "Put something on the calendar," he said. "It forces action in the future."

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor for magazines and newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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