Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Before You Say Anything: Seven Seconds to Stronger First Impressions

That 30-second elevator speech you’ve worked up to impress prospects, interviewers, or potential partners when you meet them? It’s more than four times too long for making an effective first impression – at least according to results from a study conducted by New York University’s Stern Graduate School of Business that showed people make decisions about others in the first seven seconds after meeting them.

Seven seconds – count that out “one-Mississippi”-style. Done? Then you know there’s nothing you can say in that amount of time to get your best self across in that first impression. Which means you have to rely on non-verbal cues if you really want to impress in that first meeting. So, based on suggestions from executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, here are seven things to do – without saying a word – to create stronger connections and stronger first impressions in those crucial seven seconds:

1.  Warm up – When you go to a rock concert, does the band play immediately? No, they send out a warm up act first. Warming up changes the energy of an interaction, whether it’s between an audience and performer or a professional and prospect. And warming up before a meeting is easy, too. Simply chat with someone before the meeting – a receptionist at the prospect’s site, or someone you already know at a networking event. Doing this will change the tone of your interaction, taking you out of “pitch” mindset and getting you into a more connection-building conversation mindset.

2.  Stand up straight – Posture says a lot about you, so stand up straight, square your shoulders, and hold your head up. People are attracted to confidence, and that’s what this posture communicates. Want to see it in action? Check out Christopher Reeve in 1978’s “Superman” right after he and Margot Kidder have their romantic flight over the city and, as Clark Kent, he contemplates telling her his secret. Without costume changes or special effects, Reeve goes from Clark Kent to Superman and back to Clark Kent in a matter of seconds, and does it all with body language, simply through the way he stands.

3.  Smile – Smile when you meet people. Human beings are hard-wired to respond positively to smiles, which actually stimulate the reward center in the viewer’s brain. So smiling at a prospect creates instantly in that person a positive association with you.

4.  Shake hands – According to research, a good handshake can develop the same rapport as three hours of verbal interaction, so you can’t emphasize it too much. Reach out, take the prospect’s hand, apply some pressure (no one likes a limp or bone-crushing handshake), apply the “one-two” pump business coaches recommend and then use this little technique to establish greater connection: hold on to the other person’s hand a moment longer. Non-verbally, that fraction of a second of extra contact communicates your interest in the other person, lending additional depth and sense of sincerity to that contact.

5.  Make eye contact – At least in North American culture, lack of eye contact can suggest disrespect, boredom, or just plain lack of interest. Looking someone in the eye indicates you’re paying attention and interested in the person. But as much as too little eye contact is bad, too much can make the person you’re meeting uncomfortable. So a good rule to follow when meeting someone for the first time is to make initial eye contact long enough to note to yourself what color eyes the person has – actually say to yourself “She has green eyes” or “He has brown eyes” and you’ll maintain that contact to make your prospect feel more connected with you.

6.  Raise your eyebrows – A squint or knit brow communicates judgment or confusion, and nobody wants to feel they’re being judged or perceived as confusing. So to further put your prospect at ease, raise your eyebrows, which signals openness and interest.

7.  Lean in – It’s no secret that we lean toward things that appeal us, so leaning forward, toward an individual, communicates that you're engaged and interested. Even when you’re sitting you can apply this: Instead of sitting straight up or with your back against the chair’s back, scoot forward and lean in – how do they describe an exciting or thrilling movie? That’s right: “edge of your seat.” Sitting like this communicates your enthusiasm to the person you’re speaking with.

All that you can do in seven seconds, before you say anything, strengthening your first impression by creating a more powerful sense of connection.

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