Develop a First-Impression Strategy

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 2:08 PM EST

The power of first impressions is so powerful -- and so lasting -- that it is imperative for you to think through your first encounters when entering a new job, a new role, or making new contacts.

I was reminded of this by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his HBR.org blog post, Shape Perceptions of Your Work, Early and Often. His general message is that other people can spread your praises better than you can, so be active in making that happen.

But he also reminds us that you only have one chance to make a first impression, and the stakes are incredibly high.

"Perceptions are also self-sustaining because, once people have formed an impression of another, they stop actively gathering new information. Once I know you are smart, I won't attend as much to every little thing you do -- which means you can more easily get away with being not so brilliant and I won't notice."
This says to me that it is critical to think through our initial encounters with people. Here are three things to help you shape your personal communications strategy.
  1. Do your homework. You want the first meeting to be memorable, so find out an interesting fact or accomplishment about the person you want to impress. This shows you care enough about them to do a little pre-meeting research, and helps build a human bridge between you. Calculating, true. But effective.
  2. What's the outcome? Go into the meeting with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, whether it's an invitation for another meeting, to gauge this person's communication style or to send a message about how you can help them in their own goals. Ask yourself, What do I want this person to say about me when I'm not in the room?
  3. Follow up. Always send a timely follow-up e-mail or call to reinforce whatever themes you were communicating face-to-face.
What can you add to this list? Do you handle first meetings differently than the rest?

(Photo by Flickr user russelljsmith, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.