First impressions are easy and forgettable. What really matters is what happens after the rituals.
Everyone knows that first impressions are important. As such, almost everyone in business has already honed their appearance, smile, and handshake. But often that means first impressions are all similar and forgettable.
What isn't forgettable and, indeed, what defines you as a businessperson is the second impression. This takes place after the ritual greetings, when the other person begins to assess who you really are.
Here's how to leave a great second impression:
1. Refer to something you read about the other person.
After the ritual of greeting (and the trading of first impressions), there's usually an uncomfortable lull because, well, the ritual's over and now it's time to actually have a conversation.
Most people try to fill that lull either with idle chit-chat about the weather or sports or, if they're in the office of the other person, they may remark on something in the office, like a family photo.
The problem with this approach is that it's entirely predictable, which means that the second impression that you left is that you're boring and predictable.
What works much better is to make a remark or ask a question about something you read about the other person. The idea is to get the other person talking about him- or herself.
However, this only works if you're genuinely curious about that aspect of the other person, so be certain to select a topic that would actually interest you.
"How about them Red Sox?"
"I saw on the Web that you were at CES. Just out of curiosity, what struck you as the most innovative new product at the show?"
2. Explain (or re-explain) why you're there.
While you're having that conversation, listen carefully for the cue or pause in the other person's voice that says it's time to get to the point. It's important that you catch this cue because if you miss it, the other person will feel as if you're wasting his or her time.
When you hear the cue, make a remark that closes the conversation launched in step 1 and then state the reason for the meeting. Do not assume that the other person knows or remembers why you're there, especially if the other person has many responsibilities.
To further respect the other person's time, state an explicit end point for the conversation and also how much time you expect the conversation to last. Make it clear, though, that you're willing to go over that time, if the other person deems it necessary.
"Great story! Here are my ideas about the veeblefetzer problem."
"It sounds like CES was really interesting. I wish I could have been there.... The reason I'm here is to discuss the veeblefetzer situation and hopefully come up with a plan to deal with it. I don't want to take more than 15 minutes or so of your time, but if we need more time I can stay."
3. Have a meaningful conversation.
The first substantive conversation that you have with the other person defines most of the second impression. My previous post "How to Have a Meaningful Conversation" explains how to do this in detail. Here's a quick summary:
Ask thoughtful questions.
Listen more than you talk.
Don't anticipate or interrupt.
Pause and think before responding.
Overall, the best second impression that you can make is that you care about and respect the other person, which is what having a meaningful conversation is all about.
4. Track the time and offer an exit ramp.
Nothing leaves a worse second impression than wasting somebody's time. That's why it's crucial to give the other person the opening to end the meeting when you've reached the time limit that you've defined or agreed upon.
Ideally, when this happens, you'd like it to be at the point where you're discussing the next steps of whatever decision you want made. If not, though, you must still offer the other person an exit ramp.
If the conversation is important to the other person, he or she may want to continue it. However, it must be other person's choice, not yours.
5. Express gratitude, then leave.
Finally, never outstay your welcome. You want to leave that first meeting with the other person wanting to, or at least willing to, have further conversations with you.
In other words, the reason you want to make a good second impression is so that you have a chance to make a third, fourth, and fifth one.