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The Seven-Second Advantage

You're at a business conference and you turn toward the stranger standing next to you. He turns to face you and in that instant your brain makes a thousand computations. Is he someone to approach or to avoid? Should you flee or be friendly? Will he harm you or help you?

In about seven seconds you've already decided whether you like the person or not. Sure, your opinion may change once you get to know him better, but that first impression will linger for a long time.

Don’t forget that while you're consciously and unconsciously evaluating him, he's making the same kind of instantaneous judgments about you.

In business interactions, first impressions are critical. Once someone mentally labels you as "likeable" or "unlikeable," everything else you do will be viewed through that filter. If someone likes you, she'll look for the best in you. If she doesn't like you or mistrusts you, she'll suspect devious motives behind all your actions.

While you can't stop people from making snap decisions—the human brain is hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism—you can learn how to make those decisions work in your favor.

First impressions are more heavily influenced by nonverbal cues than verbal ones. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues impact the impression you make four times more than anything you say. Luckily, the same nonverbal factors that draw you to certain people are what others are instinctively looking for in you.

We all want to do business with people who are trustworthy and energizing, who put us at ease and make us feel good about ourselves. Luckily, these are the very qualities that you can project nonverbally in those first crucial seven seconds.

Here are six powerful ways to make a positive first impression:
  1. Adjust your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Before you turn to greet someone, enter an office for a business interview, or step onstage to make a presentation, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embrace. Attitudes that attract people include curious, friendly, happy, receptive, patient, approachable, welcoming, and helpful. Attitudes that are off-putting include angry, impatient, bored, arrogant, afraid, disheartened, and suspicious.

  2. Smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. It says, "I'm friendly and approachable."

  3. Make eye contact. Looking at someone's eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. (To improve your eye contact, make a habit of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)

  4. Raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes slightly more than normal to simulate the "eyebrow flash" that is the universal signal of recognition and acknowledgement.

  5. Shake hands. This is the quickest and most effective way to establish rapport. Research shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake. (Just make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand touches the web of the other person's.)

  6. Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you're engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person's space. In most business situations, the comfort zone is about two feet away.

Once you've passed the "seven-second test" and are engaged in conversation with another person, you can create a lasting, positive impact by adding a single nonverbal component to a simple verbal statement. Here's how to do it: When you meet someone, and he tells you his name, find a way to repeat that name later in the conversation. And as you do, anchor the positive emotion (which your use of his name evokes) by touching the person lightly on the forearm.

The impact of this brief touch comes from the fact that you have aroused positive feelings in an individual by remembering and using his name, and as you touch his arm, those positive emotions get linked (or anchored) to your touch. Then at subsequent meetings you can reactivate that initial favorable impression by once again lightly touching your acquaintance's arm.

Every encounter, from conferences to meetings to training sessions to business lunches, presents an opportunity to meet people, network, and expand your professional contacts by making a positive first impression. You've got just seven seconds—but if you handle it well, seven seconds are all you need!