Jul 192017

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Earl R Smith II, PhD


As the old saw goes ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. I am often amazed at how much time and polish people spend on their so called ‘elevator speech’ and then how casually they present themselves, their interests and their company during a first encounter. First meetings have at least two components that demand careful attention. The first is the communication of information about you, your interests and your company. The second (mostly nonverbal) is the impression that you make (and leave) with the other person.

Networking Events: People do business with people they know, like and trust. The principal purpose of networking is finding those people who seem to be good candidates for meeting those standards.

Is that how you are approaching the process? Here’s a good test. Go back over the last few months of business cards that you have collected and think about how each of those initial contacts has played out. Figure the amount of time you spent meeting these people and compare it with the results generated. How does it stack up? Are you scoring or just running the bases? Has the investment in time and money paid off or is it all a write-off? What has been the net result?

Branding: Your personal brand is the definition of you in the minds of others. Your company’s branding is the image of your company as understood by outsiders and as represented by you. Both are the sum of judgments, opinions and gossip that results from the coherency, and sometimes downright incoherency, of the image you project.

Branding begins with the first meeting with any person or company. They open a file on you from the moment you come in contact with them. In the early stages of any relationship first impression dominates. Trouble comes when the images that you are projecting do not jibe with the words you are using. You could be losing customers and deals because your first impressions aren’t what they need to be.

Most people make a common mistake in first meetings … they think that the information within their ‘elevator speech’ is the most important part of what is going on. But just a little thought will suggest why that might not be so.

You might be successful, using the attractive bait of a well crafted elevator speech, in kicking off a conversation. But success may quickly be sabotaged by the conflicting messages that make up a first impression. Along with the elevator speech you may be giving signals which directly contradict that carefully crafted message. You may appear insincere, disorganized, untrustworthy, overly casual, unfocused, disengaged, unlikable, disrespectful, sloppy, callous … or any of a number of other negative message carriers.

The effects of first impressions endure (and often prove notoriously difficult to overcome). It is that first impression of who you are … what kind of person you are … that serves as the basis for the other person’s decisions about whether to allow the relationship to develop further. The relevant maxim here is that people do business with people they know, like and trust.

No matter how well crafted your message is, if they aren’t getting to know you, think that they probably won’t like you and/or feel that they won’t be able to trust you, the game is over before it begins.

The cruel fact is that most of these negative impressions are generated by a thoughtless approach to the critical ‘get acquainted’ process … that is, they are unnecessary and self-sabotaging. As in other parts of life, it is the unthinking actions that are the ones that get you into real trouble! It is also those unthinking actions that keep you repeating the same mistakes over and over … and having the same results over and over as well.

The Exchange: Let’s consider an ordinary occurrence to make the point … the exchange of business cards and the ritual which normally accompanies it. The business card is used on a daily basis by people to communicate information not only about them but also about their company. This exchange should convey a company’s brand, its purpose and its importance to a potential customer.

Personally, I respond best when the card is offered immediately after a common value proposition is identified and as an important representative of the individual I am talking to … as something that I will take away when we part.

So, how do some people approach this important ritual? I have had people stuff their cards in a spare pocket and pull out one dog-eared representative. The clear message is “Oh hell, it’s not that important, but you might as well have one of these.” Then there are people who keep their cards in their wallets! Out comes a bent, damp first impression. “Goodness”, I think “If this is how you treat your representatives, how are you going to treat me?” If you think that is a bit off base, try it this way; “If you can’t bother to make sure you make a good first impression, how are things likely to go when they get more casual?” Most times these cards never leave the meeting with me.

I get all kinds. The most objectionable for me is the person who, in giving you their card, seems to need to apologize for both the card and themselves. “What’s the point?” Another type seems to want to slip the card to me with a minimum of effort and exposure … a kind of surreptitious delivery. I feel like I am out in the cold somewhere in East Berlin before the wall came down.

Then there are those who seem to make it clear that the card (and themselves, I would gather) are not worth all the attention … that what is going on is not that important and that the card represents something of little consequence. These people don’t seem to see their time as valuable and most likely see my time that same way. I find this insulting. Finally, some people have built a cute trick, inappropriate photo or reference into their card. The branding message becomes the cute trick … which seems of more interest to them anyway … so the next time I need a cute trick …

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