Making a good first impression

Released: Monday 8 November 2021

On this episode we talk about how to get a relationship off to a good start, whether it’s a check-in clerk you’ll likely never see again, or an important client, or your own colleagues who’ve you only previously met on Zoom.

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Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Deborah Frances-White: I’m Deborah.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom

Alex MacLaren: And welcome to Episode One. And in episode one we’re going to be talking about first impressions, which often comes up as a challenge for people in companies. And the question I want to ask you guys is, do you believe in love at first sight?

Deborah Frances-White: I believe in lust at first sight for sure. I definitely believe in chemistry at first sight. And I think it’s easier if you have that instant chemistry. And I will say, three times in my life, there have been people I have met to whom I have been instantly magnetically drawn – no cases have been romantic or sexual. But those people have all been very important players in my life, instantly wanted to spend a lot of follow up time with me, and I them. And as our stories unfurled over the following year or two, it would always turn out that we had something deep – and in this case, traumatic – in our past around religion and oppression and family issues and things like that, in common, but that didn’t come out till later. So that feeling of being drawn to each other was based on something. And sometimes you have to spend time exploring what that thing is. So that’s what I believe in. I believe that whenever I have that connection with someone else, where I go, wow, there’s something going on here. I think look for the reason that underneath.

Tom Salinsky: So what can you do? If you don’t feel that instant connection? What can you do to try and increase your chances of making a good first impression without that kind of backstory either being sensed or later revealing itself?

Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s a good and important question. Because what Deborah’s describing there is that sort of serendipitous moment that you have, as you assemble your people around you, and it’s almost like you think back – there was something magic there with those individuals? I mean, I what you’re saying about people who are different from us is really significant to me, because I’m thinking of friends, I have who – actually, there’s one friend, I’m thinking of who, when we first met, I thought, oh, no, this is this is not good, we have nothing in common at all. And then that turns out to be wrong. It’s almost like the second and third impression, which is when the friendship gets built, or maybe the experiences we have together, which are then the foundation for that connection. And when people are coming to us with this challenge about first impressions, they’re basically thinking about oh God, I need to make a good first impression in this situation, and it sometimes goes wrong.

Tom Salinsky: So let me ask you this, Alex. All other things being equal – would you rather be feeling like you have to make a good first impression and feeling like you are the host, and you’re welcoming someone else into your space? Or would you rather be the guest and someone else’s assuming the role of host? And obviously, Deborah, if you got an answer as well, that would also be interesting. But, let me check in with Alex first.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I’m a happy guest, I think. But I think that’s because I have been a host. I think I talked about sometimes might feel, I feel party fear as a host because I want to make sure that people feel safe and comfortable, in my house. When I’m a guest in somebody else’s house, some of that responsibility is off my shoulders, and all I have to do is to be a good guest. And I find that I think easier.

Deborah Frances-White: I’m a definite host. When I found my biological family, and I was going to – I’ve never met anyone related to me. I’d spoken to them on Facebook a little bit on the telephone. And I was going to New Zealand to meet for the first time, this was in 2013. A friend of mine said to me, let them host. I know what you’re going to want to do, you’re going to want to make it all right for them. You’re going to be on the front foot, you’re going to be in your stand-up comedy persona a little bit, making everyone feel welcome and comfortable and – let them host. And I thought that’s a really good note. It’s their home, it’s their family. You’re entering into it. Sit back, let them make overtures. Let them offer you things. Don’t feel you have to do all the emotional work and the social work. And I really took that on board. Yeah. And I think I am much stronger in the host position, I think in the guest position. I can probably be overwhelming to people.

Alex MacLaren: It’s so funny. I was thinking, what disaster stories could I tell about first impressions. And this one, which relates a little bit to what you’re saying, Deborah, I was having this relationship once. And I’d heard a lot about her family. And she didn’t particularly get on with them, it was quite a complicated family. And, after a while, it became really necessary for me to meet them. And I can’t quite remember the details, but we ended up going out for lunch, me and her mum, and her mum’s boyfriend. So it is a little bit like this family thing that you’re describing.

Deborah Frances-White: Oof.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, well, the stakes are incredibly high. And so obviously, I felt under pressure in that I felt quite protective of my girlfriend at the time. But I also have these family members to please. I mean, it’s such a really, really high stakes. Anyway, I definitely messed it up. The bit I remember vividly is at the end was trying to pay and trying to buy lunch, for these people. And I think it must have read as some kind of power grab for me to pay for lunch with people who are a generation ahead of me.

Deborah Frances-White: Oh, that’s a classic, me move, classic.

Alex MacLaren: And I knew it as it was happening, I thought, oh, no, I’ve really mis-stepped here. And I think I then had the experience of somebody telling me how rude and arrogant I was to my face.

Deborah Frances-White: So you’re pretty sure you didn’t make a good first impression there.

Alex MacLaren: I’m pretty sure about that. Yeah. And I think I want to tell this story purely because I think it’s inevitable that we have screw ups, okay, even in relatively functional social patterns. And because we have those experiences from which we learn, and not ones that we just go away and kind of sort of beat ourselves up about for the rest of our lives. But the penny does drop – okay, I think that was the problem in that situation. But it’s these high stakes moments. I think that is part of what of our anxiety about first impressions, it’s often okay, my first day as a member of new group, so your first day of school, your I noticed that often people want to transform themselves when they move into new situations. And so they feel they can make a different impression. People change their names when they go to university.

Tom Salinsky: One of the profoundly weird things about the pandemic has been people joining new jobs, new workforces without being able to physically meet people. You know, when you start a new job, everyone says hello to you, and you’re shown to your desk and someone will say do you want to come for lunch? Or we’re going for drinks after work. And you get all that stuff, so you start to be assimilated. You start to be able to bond with everybody. Can you imagine having to do that over Zoom? Well, it’s just impossible.

Alex MacLaren: And in fact, I’ve had clients say to me in the last year during Zoom training sessions, oh, yes, I was recruited in the pandemic, I’ve done all of my work from my desk at home. But then last week, I had my first day at work, and I met these people whose faces I’ve seen. But it’s different when you’re there in person. Oh, gosh, you’re tall! Is a thing that people are saying or hearing for the first time?

Deborah Frances-White: Well, here’s a question I have is the difference between making a first impression at a networking event where nobody really knows anyone, or there might be little pockets of people who know each other, and turning up as the new boyfriend or girlfriend of a really tight friendship circle, where they’ve all got nicknames, and you use one of the nicknames too soon. So what I would sort of posit is, what is this most like, this situation? Is it in some ways a bit easier, because lots of people were recruited in that time? So that now you’re going into a place that’s a little bit more like a friendly bar where some people know each other, but it’s not weird if you don’t know anyone. And well, I’ve never met her either, as opposed to first day of school at a new school where everyone else is already in a tight gang. So there might be some advantages if you are merging into your new workspace as one of a few or many new recruits during the Zoom era, because you might have an opportunity to be more of an architect of the space, as opposed to going into something that is absolutely dead set in concrete. We all have got those groups where that dynamic is absolutely set. And it’s hard. And you’re a different sort of person. I’m a different sort of person with my oldest girlfriends when we go out for cocktails. I club up, I know everyone’s going to be wearing something a bit fun and I’ll put on my fanciest pair of shoes, I’ll tell different jokes. So is it possible that if you are now turning up into a space that actually was dismantled because of COVID, you get to be one of the architects. You get to redesign this space from scratch, but you do know people, and you do know some things about them. And you have got a good working relationship with some of them. But now you need to make that 3d and in person. So you could I think use that opportunity to say ah, they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression – have you heard that?

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, very much so.

Deborah Frances-White: I think you do, in this situation.

Alex MacLaren: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I think firstly, this question about having only one shot, I think is really important. Because I think one way to cope with the stress of the first impression pressure is to remember, no, you will see them again, and you have the opportunity to adjust and to alter the impression people have of you. It’s quite interesting that First Impressions was the name of the first draft of Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice, okay?

Deborah Frances-White: Interesting!

Alex MacLaren: And, I mean, I also think about it in terms of modern publishing, we talk about the first impression of a book being the best printing of it, because later when they get those plates out and use it again, it will be worn it off. And so it feels like the first impression is never going to be as good as that. So if you make a bad first impression, you’re working down from a bad first impression, whereas actually, that isn’t what happens. You have opportunities to change it. I sometimes see people on competitive talent shows say this, “This is my one chance, Simon.” And when I hear that I’m kind of going well, I hope. I hope that isn’t the only way you’re thinking about this, because this is not the only talent show.

Deborah Frances-White: They’re bullied into saying that, Alex, because a friend of mine wouldn’t say it. And they said, Well, you’re not right for this show. She was like, this is a terrible message to put out there – my last chance!?

Alex MacLaren: It’s true, but I’m also wondering whether that actually I experienced a lot of second chances, because I’m part of a lot of very privileged groups. And it may be that there are some people that don’t experience that, oh, don’t worry, I’ve had other chances. And so I will, again. Maybe they haven’t had enough of those opportunities that that pressure is much more acute.

Tom Salinsky: And it comes back to something we’ve said to our clients for years, which is stop trying so hard. If you feel that pressure, if you feel like this is my one chance to make a good first impression. And you let that anxiety start to build up on you and you start trying your hardest you start second guessing everything, you’ll probably never find the chemistry that Deborah was talking about, even if it was there to be found. And you certainly won’t be as relaxed and charming as you’re capable of being

Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s that the issue of trying to prove something as well. I had a friend once at college who said, “No, it’s awful for me. I’m quite impressive and clever when I first meet people, and it’s just downhill after that. Later on they discover I’m really dim.” Whereas actually, I’ve seen this I’ve seen friends of mine be quite mediocre when they first meet people – and then later they dazzle and impress them.

Tom Salinsky: Well, you wanna give yourself some headroom!

Alex MacLaren: Exactly, give yourself somewhere to go.

Deborah Frances-White: I have a friend whose father moved around a lot, I think he was a diplomat or something. So he went to a new school every year. And he said, I make a dynamic first impression. And after that, no, all I know how to do is make a great first impression, I’ve got no follow through. Because I never hung around anywhere to figure out how to form long lasting friendships or, you know, be valuable in year two. And so I think a lot of us have different skills in this set. And I think there’ll be lots of people listening to this who go, yep, relate to that, can make a great first impression, and then find it quite awkward to follow up and say, let’s have a lunch. I think also, I can make a great impression on stage. But then sometimes if I am trying to talk to two people in a bar who know each other very well, I think I’m being too much, or oh, I can’t quite get in here. They already they have their thing going on. So I think it varies situation to situation where individuals listening to this might know they make good impressions. So some people say I’m great with mums, you know, I’ve had every boyfriend I’ve ever had, like the mums cried when we broke up. I can absolutely work mums. But new bosses – oof. And I think sometimes what’s useful for me is figuring out, in a process driven way, what is it that I’m doing in the situations in which I know I’m coming across very well, and people like me. Because if I can figure out the mechanics of it, when I am in a situation of high anxiety. I can go, well you know you’re good with mums. And you know what you do there is you tell them something wonderful about their son, that’s not sycophantic. Then you ask her lots of questions. So here I am standing at a networking event. Can I if, I recognize the name on their badge of the company they work for, say I hear you’re doing a very exciting project to do with the merger. That’s going to open them up – “Oh, you heard about me?” People love hearing you’ve heard about them. And then can you ask them questions.

Tom Salinsky: And I think one of things you’re doing there is you’re taking responsibility for making this relationship get off to a good start. And I think that’s in a way tricky, because going back to the thing you we’re talking about, when you just click with somebody, no one’s having to consciously take responsibility. So I think we can sometimes be fooled into thinking, if that doesn’t happen magically by itself, it’s never going to happen and something’s gone wrong. But actually, there are lots of situations where someone else is taking responsibility for you feeling okay. And I think one of the best ways you can overcome your own feeling of anxiety or uncertainty is to say, well, I’m going to be the one to take responsibility. You know, I can think of occasions when, for example, I’ve been running a training session. And there’s been a delay, we’re waiting for people to turn up, it’s just me and the organizer stuck in a room, we’ve got nothing to talk about, except the thing that we’re here to talk about. And he or she seems a bit ill-at-ease and doesn’t quite know how to get the conversation going. Now, to be absolutely candid, this is not my idea of a good time. This is not a situation where I’m at my best I will do everything I can think of to keep the kind of chat going to find something we can talk about – anything at all make a joke, no matter how dumb, no matter how poor, any sort of attempt at humor that might be grasped with both hands, because it’s my job to keep this going. And not only if I succeed, will this person feel better, I will feel better because I’ve given myself a task.

Alex MacLaren: Yes. And I think that’s significant. Because when you’re describing that situation, you’re noticing somebody else’s state. And that, for me is really important.

Deborah Frances-White: Tom, I really have noticed you get better at this. And I think that’s encouraging for people who are listening. Because I think when you said this is not my natural home to be stuck in a room with some person who I’m meant to make a good impression on. And I think the way that you have done it is mostly you’ve changed your energy. I think the key to a lot of your charm now, which I you know, I think when we first got together – and listeners, if you don’t know, Tom is the producer of The Guilty Feminist podcast, which is the podcast that I’m best known for, but also is my husband. And I see you charm waiters now and charm your airline staff. And a lot of it is simply the energy in your voice. So you sound like there’s this great intention. So it’s the difference between somebody telling you something that’s sort of fact on a PowerPoint presentation. And somebody telling you that they’ve just discovered deep sea diving, you know, like, “Oh, my God, you’ve got to go down. It’s amazing.” So think about the energy you have in your voice. When you talk about something you care about whether that be you’re showing people pictures of your kids, your football club, your you know, a new band you’ve discovered, you just went on a yoga retreat, you can’t wait to tell your friend because they’re really into yoga. If you facsimile that energy, you just bang that energy into any sentence, you will appear to be good at making first impressions and connections, it doesn’t really matter much what you’re saying. Because that person will catch your energy and start to mirror your energy. And that’s, I think, the trick that you have – intuitively, or consciously, I don’t know which – you have developed that skill in the time I’ve known you. And I said to you, once we were at an airline counter, you really had fun with the person who was taking your case, and you were joking with them. And you gave them a really good time. And they were laughing and you were very appreciative for what they were doing. And we walked away, and I said, you know, you never, you never would have done that. years ago, you would have been quite curt in a way that I’m always trying to make people feel comfortable. And I would have thought, why are you being curt? Why have you changed that? Do you remember what you said?

Tom Salinsky: I don’t.

Deborah Frances-White: You said to me, I just realized it actually takes me very little effort to make somebody else’s day so much better.

Tom Salinsky: I’m a hero.

Alex MacLaren: You’re great, Tom.

Tom Salinsky: This is a fantastic story. I’m making a very good first impression on listeners if they don’t already know me.

Deborah Frances-White: Absolutely. But that took years and it took maturity and it took understanding. You weren’t going to get anything out of that. You were just interested in making that person’s day better. So you made a great impression on that person. But here’s what’s important about that. Sometimes, I’m with somebody in the corporate world, who’s grumpy to the taxi driver ignores the person who’s held the door open for them, curt with the receptionist, and then walks into the networking event and goes “Hello, hello, hello, it’s wonderful to meet me.” And I go, huh, there’s something off about your performance here. You haven’t had any practice. Because actually don’t really care about how other people feel. You care about how other people see you only if they’re important. So this is a win-win for you. Because you can practice this all the time, while making every waiter’s day more fun, making every service person feel more appreciated, and you will genuinely get better at it. Because in that same time, I’ve seen you be a lot better with clients as well, and you know, other people that we work with. You go into a theater and you’re able to charm the technicians who you know, to give you a little bit extra or you know – and I don’t mean charm in a manipulative way. I mean, genuinely put a good energy into the room, make them feel good, but also then have a better all-round experience for everybody.

Alex MacLaren: I think that consistency is what people know, is authenticity. Because it’s not just what you’re doing. It’s why you’re doing it. And it’s the fact that Tom’s doing it for a righteous reason that we love him for it, rather than he’s doing it in order to get this contract.

Deborah Frances-White: Alex, it’s interesting, you use that word, authenticity, because I hear that word a lot in the corporate world, people say you should be your authentic self, bring your authentic self to work. I mean, you can’t really bring your whole self to work. When that when people say that they don’t really mean it. We leave the worst parts of ourselves for those who love us the most – our family. But I think what they mean is bring more of your best self to work and more of your fuller self to work. As far as authenticity goes. Yes, great. But it can be a bit limiting. my authentic self likes to eat cake, and lie down. That’s who I am. That was who I was as a child. But my best self, likes to eat fruit and do yoga. And I find if I just do the things my best self would do for six months, that becomes authentic. Because now honestly, it is more authentic for me to move than it is for me to be sedentary. I cannot stay sedentary for longer than two to three days, I have to move, I have to exercise. So yes, be your authentic self. But know that your authentic self can evolve. Change your habits, it will feel weird at first, but in six months that you behavior of knowing how to make a great first impression on someone because you figured out what your routine is there or what processes you might use to do it will become authentic, and you won’t have to think about it anymore. You’ll just do it.

Alex MacLaren: I think when people are talking about authenticity, they’re often thinking about a narrative about a person and about whether or not they’re being tricked, or there’s something fake going on.

Tom Salinsky: I’m being manipulated, such a sly one.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, or that, oh, no, that’s that’s not what she’s really like, or he’s actually like this. And I think, really, when we’re talking about the behavioral dimension of making a first impression – jwhat do I do, what person is standing at the door – really, I think the question people are asking is not is this behavior, authentic behavior, but they’re really asking is this motive, an authentic motive? And I think that’s one of the challenges we face at work in that we are being asked to do things as part of my job description, not necessarily something I would do outside this salary situation. And so I think people are often, on a sort of very gentle level, wracked with anxiety about this question all of the time, and we’ll be returning to it through this series of podcasts.

Deborah Frances-White: It’s a very important question for the first episode of this podcast, though, because some people may have tuned in thinking, “Am I going to learn to be a fake?” Because I think for some strange reason, people skills, we think we can not develop without being fake. So you wouldn’t say to your colleague, she speaks excellent German – but she’s not German. She learned that. She went to classes!

Tom Salinsky: You should have seen the first cake she tried to bake. Oh, my word!

Deborah Frances-White: She’s not an authentic baker. She’s studied that, she’s practiced. We understand if someone plays the piano, it is not authentic, is learned, and it is practiced. But we know the difference when we hear a player who is putting their full self in and their self-expression into the rendition. And when we hear somebody going 1234, 1234. And so we understand to get better at something, we might have to go through a phase where we’re counting it out. I don’t know why we have this strangeness around people skills and self-development skills, presentation skills, things like that. Because you we have developed the ones we’ve got – most of us were pretty feral when we were three, but we learned through peer group pressure and – don’t be like that you’re being you’re being a dick. You know, somebody would say that at school, and then you kind of figured out that if you wait, behave in certain ways, you’re going to get bullies to leave you alone or boys or girls to like you.

Alex MacLaren: And I think also there is an implicit compliment in bringing energy to an interaction in looking like you want to be there. You don’t have to say “Oh, I think you look great,” or “I’m glad I’m here.” It’s there in what you’re doing. And it’s there in your curiosity about the people you’re engaging with, regardless of where they sit on some kind of putative rank ladder. So your homework for this week listeners, okay, is about noticing things about the people you’re engaging with. This is about outward consciousness. Next time you have an encounter with a stranger, any kind of interaction with a stranger – regardless of whether they are the person you’re buying your coffee from, or the person you’re having a job interview with – think about their choices, think about what they’re saying, think about how ask yourself how they feel about things – not the innate things about their age, and gender, and race and how their status presents to the world – and assume that all of their choices are good choices. And ask yourself and maybe even ask them, why they’re making those choices and have that interaction. Be curious and interested in the people you’re talking to. And that will totally transform the first impression you’re making on them.

Deborah Frances-White: One way of looking at it could be – does this person want to be the host? Or does this person want to be the guest?

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, that’s brilliant.

Deborah Frances-White: Thank you, Alex. And now I feel like maybe I’m the guest, because I’ve been told I’m brilliant. But I think that’s a useful way for me to look at it, because I’m too often the host. And I think actually – I’m just working something out now, live on this podcast, listeners – where I make an excellent impression is with people who enjoy being guests. Where I overwhelm people or make people feel somehow that I’m the big energy in the room and they’ve just got to compete, or shut up till I leave, I think I am probably with natural hosts. So I am going to set myself homework, which is to ask myself, Is this taxi driver a host? Or is she a guest? That’s right, the taxi driver was a woman all along! #feminism.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you guys so much for joining me for this week’s You Can Talk to Anyone. And let’s catch up next week.

Tom Salinsky: See you next week.

Deborah Frances-White: See you next week.