How to master first impressions, no matter the occasion
It’s a well-known fact that body language makes a huge impact on your ability to impress others. Of the many aspects of body language that count in impression management, the cues that you give off in the first few minutes—or even seconds—of meeting others play a particularly important role. Often, you make those crucial first impressions when you enter an ongoing event or situation. Whether it’s a social gathering, business meeting, date, or family occasion, by focusing on the way you walk into the room, you can control whether the rest of the encounter goes well or poorly for you.
Stage performers are the consummate experts in making a grand entrance. In a scripted performances, actors and directors work hard to ensure that each character’s body language conveys an instant peek into his or her personality, motivation, and relationships with the other characters. Even classical musicians, whom you might think of as controlling impressions by their ability to perform the piece, control the audience’s reaction to their work by the way they first make their appearance into the concert hall.
In a study of people’s reactions to the entrances made by classical violinists, Friedrich Platz and Reinhard Kopiez (2013) of the Hanover University of Music, in Germany, conducted a series of online surveys in which participants were instructed to watch videos of violinists and react to the impressions the performers made in the moment they became visible on the stage and before they played the first musical tone. Surprisingly, neither clothing nor attractiveness were important influences on the impressions the violinists made. Instead, viewers judged the performers on such criteria on whether the performers nodded at the audience, looked around before they picked up the bow, strode in confidently as they walked across the stage to take their spot next to the conductor, and once there, whether they placed their feet in a relatively wide stance.
We can conclude that making a confident and pleasing entrance can influence how you’re perceived in those first moments after you enter your own stage. However, the Platz and Kopiez study also showed that the audience’s initial reactions carried over to influence how they perceived the entire performance. If they were favorably impressed by the performer, they didn’t want the performance to end. If you’ve ever sat restlessly through a concert, you can surely relate to this. It's possible that your boredom and discomfort were due to the musician’s inability to capture your attention in those seconds before starting to play or sing.
Another aspect of the Platz and Kopierz study relates to the match or mismatch between the audience’s expectations and the performer’s actual behavior. A grand entrance may be great for some situations but completely inappropriate for others. I highly doubt that the violinists in the study would enter their living rooms at home in the same way they marched on stage to join the orchestra. If they did, their families would undoubtedly give them a pretty hard time.
With this background in mind, these 8 tips can turn your own entrances into not just grand, but great ones that accomplish your own impression-management goals:
- Assess the situation before you make your entrance. Recalling that the appropriateness of a performer’s entrance was a key factor in audience impressions, decide for yourself how grand your grand entrance should be. If it’s an informal situation, don’t try to make a big splash. Similarly, if you know everyone present, your impression was made long ago. In fact, if you draw too much attention to yourself in an informal situation, you’ll be perceived perhaps as narcissistic and self-centered.
- Don’t be fashionably late. It might strike you as good impression management policy to be the last person to enter a room, but in fact, if you’re consistently late, you’ll only get a reputation as someone who’s unreliable. If you’re not the last person to enter the scene, you can still make a great impression by welcoming those who come in after you with a smile, a nod, or a handshake.
- Show the appropriate emotions for the situation. This point is related somewhat to Tip #1, but it pertains to the emotional atmosphere, not the formality, of the gathering. Obviously you wouldn’t enter a funeral laughing loudly or, conversely, a party while you’re noisily weeping into your hankie. In between, there are all sorts of emotionally-tinged contexts that require differing displays of affect. Serious occasions such as business meetings or parent-teacher gatherings require that you display a certain level of gravitas. For holiday gatherings, on the other hand, you want to appear pleasant and relaxed. In other words, take the emotional temperature of the situation and display your own feelings accordingly. If the situation is one demanding a poker face, and you want no emotion to show, then put your face and body in a relaxed, neutral state.
- Pause briefly to gather your thoughts. Even if you’ve tried your hardest not to be late, but circumstances didn’t cooperate and you are entering after something's begun, just take a second or two to pause and collect yourself. You may want to show your regret for being late by seeming stressed or anxious, but this will only undercut your impression as someone who’s reliable and in control. You’re better off apologizing for your lateness (and giving a reason, if possible), and then blending into the meeting without drawing any more attention to yourself. On the other hand, if you’ve timed things perfectly and you feel great about what will happen after you enter, you can still benefit by quickly taking a mental run-down of what you’re hoping to accomplish in the situation.
- Look around at the people in the room. We saw in the Platz and Kopierz study that the successful violinists looked at their audience and even nodded to them. If as you enter a crowded scene, people turn your way, you’ll seem haughty if you don’t return their gaze. You don’t have to perform a beauty queen wave, but you can certainly acknowledge their presence and seem glad to be there with them.
- Determine when you’re not the center of attention. There are many situations that we enter in which we’re only one of the crowd. Accept the fact that you’re not the big cheese, and make your entrance in a dignified but not grandiose manner. Then, when the actual center of attention enters the scene, keep in mind that everyone else wants to greet that person too, and don’t rush in to be the first.
- Look as if you’re glad to be there. Again, without being inappropriately emotive, use your body language to communicate the fact that you are pleased to be in the presence of the people in the situation. This may be a meeting that you’ve dreaded for weeks, but if you unconsciously show your anxiety or disdain for the upcoming encounter, you’ll only guarantee that it turns out as badly as you feared.
- Don’t despair if you’ve blown your opening move. Okay, so you entered the room and tripped on the leg of a chair. Maybe you’re a teacher meeting your class for the first time and fall down a step leading to the classroom. You’re meeting a blind date, and your feet just go out from under you. These “oops” moments are not insurmountable. Even if you wish the flub hadn't occurred, you have to acknowledge that it did. Just don’t go overboard. You don’t need to go on and on with blaming the chair, talking about what a klutz you are, or continuing to make reference to it for the rest of the meeting or occasion. Smile, brush yourself off, and then focus on your meeting, class, or date.
Great entrances are often grand, but they’re most likely to be successful if they’re appropriate for the situation. Once you’ve mastered your ability to control what happens first, you’ll be far more likely to enjoy yourself and create a great impression, no matter what happens next.