When it comes to your success in business and entrepreneurship, interpersonal skills are just as essential as technical and professional know-how.

You probably already know this, but are you working to actively foster your social smarts?

The fact is, your innovative idea, untouched market gap, or game-changing new product won’t see the light of day without competent networking and communication prowess.

And a great place to start your social education is at the beginning — the all-important first impression.

Thankfully (like other soft skills) you can develop and practice the ability to make a good first impression. With it in your armory of social skills, you can effectively communicate and sell your ideas (and yourself) to potential customers, investors, employees, and the business community at large.

In this article, we’ll break down the importance of first impressions and walk you through nine actionable tips for mastering them.

Do first impressions matter?

Research suggests that we form lasting impressions of people very rapidly and from characteristics as immutable as facial structure.

Scientists theorize that we developed these quick-fire judgments to evaluate threat potential and aid in sexual selection. In other words, the social and economic consequences of first impressions are incredibly important.

In the context of business, though, these judgments move beyond fixed characteristics like facial structure and into the realm of things like behavior and speech.

There’s an underlying transactional element in business networking. Listeners tend to work harder to determine whether a speaker is worth engaging with, both consciously and subconsciously.

This can be encouraging to those who want to refine their impression-making skills —  you don’t have to rely on great genetics to make a good impression.

Additionally, there’s a well-established psychological construct that helps to reinforce the importance of a great first impression…

The ‘halo effect’

The halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby a positive impression of something in one area positively influences a person’s perceptions of that thing in other, unrelated, areas.

In marketing, advertisers may employ the use of celebrity endorsements to influence the perception of their product or company positively.

For example, if Beyonce (who’s cool) drinks Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola must be cool.

In product management, the success of one product has positively influential effects on the sales of other products from the company.

For example, if I love my Macbook Air, Apple’s Airpods must be equally well-made.

Apple products across categories

There’s no reason why the same doesn’t apply to individuals.

A positive first impression can establish a halo effect that improves someone’s perceptions of your big idea, opening the door to new opportunities.

The question that remains is — how do you make a good impression?

9 tips to make a great first impression

As with all things related to the human psyche, there is no one clear answer. But using logic, real-life examples, and a few psychological principles, we can offer a few powerful suggestions.

1. Mirror speech or body language

Mirroring and mimicry describe the reflection of certain behaviors, movements, and speech patterns of someone else in your own behavior.

It is typically done subconsciously and has its roots in evolutionary biology — those who adopted survival behaviors in others through mimicking were more likely to survive themselves.

Today, it is suggested we still wield the powerful effects of mimicry in our social exchanges.

A review of the literature surrounding social mimicry suggested that, “Having the same facial expressions, speech patterns, moods, emotions, and general human behavior of others expresses similarity, which in turn builds empathy, liking, rapport, and affiliation.”

When meeting new people, look for ways to reflect their behaviors or speech and note the effects. Be subtle — mirroring should not be obvious to the recipient, but it can provide an extra boost in feelings of familiarity and connection when used effectively.

2. Dress sharply and maintain good hygiene

They say ‘dress for the job you want, not the one you have’ — and with good reason.

It doesn’t take long for someone to form an impression, and we use sensory clues to help us develop these split-second opinions.

Beyond the structure of your face, the way you dress, the extent to which you are well-groomed, and your use of cologne (or lack thereof) all have immediate and obvious effects on the impression that people form about you.

Don’t go crazy, though. Too much cologne is as bad as none. But, definitely don’t discount the impact that the ways in which we physically present ourselves have on people’s impressions of us.

3. Rehearse and perfect your elevator pitch

You walk in, the doors close, and you’ve got the time it takes to rise seven floors to make an impression on that important manager, executive, or director.

It would be a great shame if you had a great new idea, business strategy, or product but didn’t have a concise summary of it ready to launch when the moment calls.

You don’t have to be in an elevator to use an elevator pitch, either.

At a networking event or even normal social gatherings where you’ll potentially be brushing shoulders with valuable contacts, you rarely have all the time in the world or an elaborate presentation setup to communicate your big idea.

More often than not, you have a few minutes at best. And powerful ideas should be able to be expressed in only a few lines or less.

Image of key elevator pitch prompts

Challenge yourself to craft the shortest pitch for your idea possible. Think “Uber: cars on command” short. It’s likely it will be useful to you at some point.

4. Avoid making it all about you

It’s tempting, especially if you’re short on time, to try and squeeze in as much information about yourself and your ideas as possible when meeting with fellow business people.

After all, you are seeking to rally support and motivate people to commit themselves, financially or personally, to you or your idea.

However, these good intentions can quite easily be misinterpreted as arrogance, selfishness, or even callousness when the new person has no contextual information about who you are and why you’re here.

First impressions aren’t always as instantaneous as psychological research implies. When you meet someone, there is a feeling-out process where you attempt to ‘place’ each other socially, morally, and even philosophically.

Take time to explore who the other person is. This ‘meeting-of-minds’ approach indicates to your listener that you value their personhood beyond what material things they can offer you, and it is sure to foster more support.

5. Be confident and relaxed

You probably can’t suddenly ‘switch off’ panic and nervousness. These are natural features of social interaction, especially when the stakes are high.

But take a moment to consider how superior a more relaxed, steadfast approach to meeting someone is.

Take the principle of mirroring and mimicry that we described earlier into account. If you’re twitchy, unpredictable, and palpably emotional when meeting someone, you can easily create feelings of unease. They may even end up subconsciously mirroring your emotional state, which is counter-productive to your goals.

Calm induced by using breathing techniques

There is no way to permanently ‘eliminate’ feelings of anxiety.

But you can try methods like breathing exercises, affirmative speech, and even power-posing to induce a more relaxed and confident state and improve your chances of making a great impression.

6. Learn some body language basics

It’s not only useful to inhabit positive and confident body language. You also should be able to read it proficiently in others when meeting for the first time.

Understanding what it might mean when someone sits widely and openly, closes up and minimizes their physical presence, or extends an arm to establish a physical connection can help you read their intentions and orient yourself accordingly.

You don’t have to become an expert, either. Simply search around for some basic 101s of body language and non-verbal cues, and be observant when meeting new people.

Outside of business exchanges, doing this can heighten your understanding of other people’s dispositions and can provide a way for you to be more intuitively understanding of people’s emotional well-being — which is good for everybody.

7. Make eye-contact

What does it mean to look into someone’s eyes?

It may mean many different things, but research has shown that direct (though not long-lasting) eye contact has a positive effect on feelings and attitudes as opposed to an averted gaze.

What’s more surprising is that this response can be observed even when staring into the fake eyes of a human-looking robot, as recent research suggests.

So, eye contact during a conversation indeed stimulates a strong physiological response in humans, which typically leads to a more positive effect.

Use this to your advantage by resisting the urge to avert your gaze when meeting people of authority or people you may be intimidated by. Contrary to how it may feel, it could end up enhancing their perception of you — whether they realize it or not.

And, along with that eye contact, giving them a genuine smile can go a long way.

8. Offer your undivided attention

We live in a highly distracted world.

As technology integrates more deeply into our lives with each passing day, it’s all too easy to bring some terrible habits into our real-life relationships.

You more than likely carry around a device that can steal your attention in 50 different ways all day long.

You probably have emails, texts, phone calls, and social media buzzing away non-stop. Giving in to these distractions when meeting someone for the first time — especially if it’s a planned meet — is a great way to make a terrible first impression.

Phone under a ‘banned’ sign

Offer your recipient your undivided attention. It not only shows that you have good manners, but it is also a rare advantage in today’s digital age that will not go unnoticed.

9. Perform some background research

You may not always get the chance to brush up on someone you meet before you’re confronted with them. But if you do, you should jump at the opportunity.

Something as simple as knowing where the person you’re meeting is from can greatly influence feelings of familiarity and connection.

And, if things get a little dry in the small talk department over the course of your meet, having some solid talking points ready to deploy can be a great way to promote conversational fluidity.

More than that, though, it shows that you are studious and have taken measures to understand more about who they are.

It’s flattering when someone you have never met mentions one of your contributions or past achievements. Be prepared to give that experience to someone else in order to make a lasting impression.

Perfecting the art of the first impression

Social interaction isn’t always about gaining something, even in business.

The aim here is to foster feelings of goodwill and establish connections that may be reciprocally meaningful to you both in the future.

Humans are practically born with the ability to make robust judgments about people and their intentions based on only a few passing characteristics and behaviors.

Your physical and sensory presence does matter, so make sure you’ve attended to the way you dress and groom yourself.

But it’s not the be-all and end-all — far from it. You should also work on the following:

  • Developing a confident and relaxed presence
  • Understanding how to read body language as well as ‘speak’ it
  • Offering your undivided attention
  • Performing a little background research ahead of your meet, if possible

And if you really want to make a good impression, ask yourself this: when was the last time someone made an incredible impression on you, and why?

Education is the key to career development and enduring business success. For more, check out one of Pareto Labs’ practical online business courses today.

Pareto Labs offers engaging on demand courses in business fundamentals. Built to help you elevate your game at work, our courses distill complex business topics — like how to read financial statements, how to manage people, or even how to value a business — into digestible lessons. No business background required. Our library of 200+ lessons will teach you exactly what you need to know to use it at work tomorrow. Sign up for a free trial today to start watching.