First Principles of First Impressions

More nuance is required than to smile and master small talk.

Posted Jul 15, 2017

Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Many of my clients need to make a good first impression, in networking, interviews, etc. This article summarizes what has worked best for them. I’ll focus on ideas that go beyond the standard.

Behavior change can precede attitude change

It's often said that you can’t come off well if you don’t feel good about yourself. Certainly, it helps if you do, but are the zillions of people who don’t feel good about themselves consigned to making bad first impressions until they’ve had years of depth psychotherapy?

Fortunately, behavior change can often trigger attitude change, what I call “The Whistle a Happy Tune” phenomenon. It’s embodied in the classic song of that title:

Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I'm afraid
While shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune and no one ever knows I'm afraid
The result of this deception is very strange to tell,
For when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well
I whistle a happy tune, and every single time,
The happiness in the tune convinces me that I'm not afraid
Make believe you're brave and the trick will take you far,
You may as brave as you make believe you are

So, yes, simplistic sounding as it may be, smiling is likely to make you feel more confident. Add good posture and lots of brief eye contact, and you're halfway there. And halfway may be enough. Don’t beat yourself up for not being as charismatic as Barack Obama. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

You needn’t love people

It's often said that to make a good first impression, you must be positively predisposed to others. But what if your lifetime of past experiences with humankind has been uninspiring? Perhaps you’re even one of those people who say “I like dogs better than people.” Are you consigned to making a bad first impression? Not necessarily. Do your best to be positively predisposed to that person. That doesn’t mean a specific behavior like forcing a smile or giving a vigorous handshake. It’s more like Stanislavski acting: pretending, en toto, organically, that you are a person predisposed to liking people. That may well translate into winsome behaviors.

Consider self-effacement

Yes, key to making a good first impression is making the other person feel good about him or herself. But that must go beyond smiling and praising. The conventional advice “Don’t put yourself down” is usually wrong. Self-effacement, as long as it's not self-eviscerating, is a plus because the less amazing you appear, the better the person feels about him or herself in comparison. That’s why you usually make a more positive connection by saying, “I’m clueless about this. Can you help?”  than dazzling 'em with your expertise.

Consider dressing to conform

Especially where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, many people dress unconventionally. Viewers of that side show may praise it to the person: “What cool tats and pierces!” but privately, they may deride it as a cheap way to appear special.

Or a person dresses to make a political statement. For example, a fellow host on my  NPR-San Francisco radio station usually wears proletarian clothes and often a Mao hat. That’s fine among her ideological kindred spirits but if she were trying to connect with people outside that bubble, she may well be building a wall.

You may not need to start conversations

Standard advice for networking at events is to start conversations. If you find that challenging, you may attract sufficient people just by conveying openness: wearing a hint of a smile, open body language, and occasional half-seconds of eye-contact with appealing people. That passivity even confers an advantage: If someone initiates conversation with you, s/he's automatically more invested in making it work, so-called commitment bias.

In the interaction

Here are some bumper-sticker tactics:

  • Stand or sit at a 45-degree angle to the person.
  • Lean slightly forward.
  • Again, pretend you’re playing the role of a friendly person—Engaging behaviors will flow more naturally than if you make yourself do a specific behavior like smile.
  • Ask questions about the person and share in response.
  • Listen, really listen, including for the emotional message behind the message.
  • Mirror their energy level and speech rate.
  • If it feels comfortable, touch their forearm at an appropriate moment. Ann Demarais, author of First Impressions, suggests you do it in context, for example, when pointing the person toward something.
  • Use their name every few minutes.

A conversational model I sometimes use

I start by saying something about the situation: the room, speaker, weather, food, etc., ending with a related open-ended question the person can’t flub, like, “This is my first time at this conference. You know much about it?”

Listen carefully and if s/he doesn't ask a question of you, move the conversation a step deeper by revealing something not-too intimate about yourself in no more than 30 seconds, or asking the person a question likely to lead to an answer that reveals something about him or herself. For example, “Want to tell me a little about yourself?” After s/he did, I’d say something roughly equal in intimacy and length. And I'm  off and running.

If that feels too intimate, too fast, you might start with the more conventionally recommended geography question such as, “Are you originally from here? Do you work at corporate headquarters?  A third option is to say your hobby and ask for theirs, for example, “I love watching old movies on home video. What do you like to do after work?”

Search for ideological kindredness

Few bonds are tighter than ideological kindredness. So you might ask a trial-balloon question, for example, “So, what do you think about where the country is headed?” If the person’s response is consonant with your values, you can continue down that path. If not, it's usually wise to change topics. Few people change their mind about foundational issues and if your goal is to make a good first impression, it’s more likely they’ll be turned off by your efforts to persuade than be impressed by your decimation of their viewpoint.

Practice makes more perfect

Don’t wait for a high-stakes opportunity to make a good first impression. Practice with the mail carrier or Trader Joe’s clerk—It hires friendly types. Or role play with a trusted friend.

The takeaway

As usual, an article-length prescription is likely to be inadequate, wide open to “Yes buts,” but it’s a place to start.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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