Importance of first impressions (And how to improve yours)

Updated 15 May 2023

First impressions can be quite important in many different settings, but they're particularly impactful in the professional world. This is because being able to make a positive first impression can influence your career. If you're going to job interviews, meeting with clients or working in sales, it's important to understand the value of making a positive first impression. In this article, we explain what a first impression is, review the importance of first impressions and provide tips for improving yours.

What is a first impression?

A first impression is an opinion you form of someone when you first meet them and often takes less than a minute or two to form. Consequently, a lot of what you think of them comes from assumptions and physical observations. For this reason, you can make a different first impression on different people, as they're going to make their assumptions in varying ways. If you're able to make a good first impression, this means that the first impression that others get of you is usually positive.

Related: Guide: How to introduce yourself to a new team

The importance of first impressions

The list below contains five factors that demonstrate the importance of first impressions in a professional setting:

People retain first impressions

People's assumptions often dictate their behaviour or at least influence it. Since a first impression requires assumptions based on external factors, it can change how someone views and treats you for some time. This is also because assumptions are quite easy to make but can often be difficult to disprove. Therefore, if someone's first impression of you is that you're shy, it may take some time and effort to demonstrate that the opposite is true.

There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. People often remember the beginnings of things more than subsequent things and therefore place greater value on this. For instance, they might listen to the first 30 seconds of a song before deciding whether they like it and the same applies to interactions with others. Another reason is curiosity. Since they've only just met you, they're naturally more curious to know you and, therefore, more observant. Once they've made a few assumptions, this curiosity decreases.

Related: How to introduce yourself in an interview

Further positive assumptions

If your first impression communicates positive traits to others, this can often lead them to make further positive assumptions about you. This is because people often associate certain positive traits with each other, or make deductions based on previous patterns that they've witnessed. For example, making eye contact and smiling when you greet someone new is primarily about respect, as you're acknowledging their presence and indicating that you're pleased to do so. This can make a good impression, but they might also deduce that you're honest, confident and friendly.

Alternatively, if you're well dressed at an interview, the interviewer might also make further assumptions. The obvious thing is that you're presentable, which could be directly useful in a sales role. Additionally, the interviewer might assume that you're diligent, dedicated and hard-working. This is because looking presentable takes effort, and people only expend effort if they care.

People are going to remember you

If you're able to make a good first impression, people are much more likely to remember you than someone else who made little or no impression at all. This is because you proved that you are sufficiently unique among the many other people a person meets. This is useful in many scenarios, such as sales. If you made a great impression on a customer, then the next time they think of purchasing a product, they may instantly think of you. This could lead them to return to your organisation and increase your sales numbers.

It's also useful if you're interviewing for a job. If your first impression was good enough to make you memorable, once the interviewer has finished interviewing all candidates, you're going to be among those that they instantly think of when making a decision. This is a good example of how a first impression can have a significant effect on your career.

Networking and referrals

Being able to find new opportunities can be a key contributor to professional success. This is important both for you personally and for your performance as an employee or leader. You can both find and encourage new opportunities through networking and referrals. In many professional settings, your first impression is important because others lack the time to develop an informed opinion of you due to the formality or brevity of the encounter.

For example, you may meet a prospective client for a couple of minutes. This is only enough time to make a first impression, and if they quickly discover that your services aren't what they're looking for, then the interaction is unlikely to continue for long. If you've managed to make a good impression in this time, they may consider referring you to someone they know who would find your services useful. Such an opportunity may have been unavailable in the absence of a good first impression.

Related: What is professional networking? (Learn and master it)

Becoming a leader

If you aspire to leadership positions, either within the company you're working at or outside of it, being able to make a good first impression is crucial. Leaders typically lead many people, which can make it necessary to limit your individual interactions with everyone to make the best use of your time. If your direct interactions with those you lead are brief, making a good first impression can be crucial for motivating, inspiring and leading them. For instance, if you're a leader, you'd typically want to give an impression of confidence, charisma, intelligence, empathy and respect.

Even before you actually become a leader, this can be important. If people's first assumptions about you are that you're intelligent, charismatic and confident, then they may naturally assume that you're capable of leading others. This is great practice if you want to become a leader in the future.

Related: How to write an introductory email

How to make a good first impression

If you want to improve the first impression that you make, consider following the steps:

1. Consider your appearance

In a face-to-face encounter, your physical appearance is typically the first thing people notice. This includes how you dress and grooming-related factors like your hair. In many professional settings, formal or semi-formal attire demonstrates seriousness and professionalism. It also demonstrates that you took the time to look presentable, which others often respect. Regarding hair and facial hair, keeping it trimmed and tidy is usually a good idea.

2. Make eye contact

Making eye contact when you first greet someone is very important. This demonstrates both respect and attentiveness. Making eye contact can also demonstrate that you're confident. Once you've started speaking with them, it's important to maintain this eye contact regularly, although it's OK to look away momentarily.

3. Smile

Like eye contact, smiling is a good way of acknowledging someone and indicating that you're interested and pleased to meet them. It can also help other people relax, especially if they're in an unfamiliar environment. When you combine smiling with eye contact, it can even make you appear more trustworthy.

4. Shake their hand

If circumstances permit, then shaking someone by the hand can contribute to a good first impression. This can depend on the situation. For instance, shaking hands in a formal encounter like a job interview is a good idea, but if you're working in a physical location and frequently handling customer queries, it's unnecessary to shake everyone's hand. When you do shake someone's hand, it's usually best to do so firmly but without clasping too hard.

5. Speak and listen

Speaking and listening in moderation is important for making a good first impression. Speaking too much could make it appear as if you're uninterested in the other person, whereas speaking too little might make it look like you lack confidence. Attentively listen when others speak and reply at appropriate times without interrupting. Active listening can also help ensure that your own response is concise and relevant. This can help make you appear intelligent and attentive.

Related: How to improve your active listening skills

6. Body language

Your body language is an important aspect of your first impression throughout the whole interaction. How you use body language differs based on the nature of the encounter and whether you're sitting or standing. In most situations, maintaining good posture by standing or sitting up straight can communicate confidence and attentiveness. Avoid crossing your arms at any point and it's usually best to keep your hands out of your pockets.

If you're standing and listening to a customer query, it can be convenient to clasp your hands behind your back. When you respond, you can make moderate gestures, such as indicating where they can find something. If you're sitting, you can clasp your hands in front of you or rest them on the arms of the chair if possible. When you do make gestures, try to do so moderately and carefully.

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