Career exploration and looking for a job can be a long process. Of course, interviewing and networking are high on the list of required activities to identify and locate that great career opportunity -- and meeting new people is an integral part of those activities.
In fact, every time you meet someone face-to-face for the first time, you are experiencing what I call first contact. The first 30 to 60 seconds of first contact are crucial, because the person you are meeting forms first impressions of you during that brief period. His or her gut instinct or intuition may also kick in. Did that person get a warm and friendly first impression, or did he or she perceive you as insecure, unfriendly or unpleasant?
The fact is that meeting people face-to-face for the first time can be challenging and even somewhat scary, especially if you are interviewing for a great job or meeting an important contact. Indeed, simply meeting anyone new can make some people anxious. Here are some suggestions to improve any first contact experience:
- Practice. The saying that practice makes perfect is particularly apt here. (I’m not kidding about practicing. Ask some of my former students who lined up in my classes to practice first contact.) Solicit the help of a friend or relative you trust. Review together the important parts of meeting someone for the first time. You need to step up confidently, smile, shake that person’s hand firmly, look him in the eyes and introduce yourself. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Yes, it’s fairly simple, but it’s often not so easy.
- Grip. Your handshake can convey a positive or negative message. How you grip someone’s hand can send that message. I’ve shaken hands with many people over the years and have encountered all types of handshakes. Most people are looking to receive a firm handshake. Firm, however, can be taken to an extreme. This is not an arm-wrestling match. You also don’t want to go to the other extreme and barely touch their hand; limp handshakes feel like you’re touching a dead fish. That’s not the way to make a good first impression. Practice until you can find a happy medium for your grip strength.
- Visualize. Use visualization to your advantage. Envision meeting people before you actually do to strengthen your confidence. If you will be attending a networking event, spend some time earlier in the day mentally playing out a positive scenario. In your mind’s eye, see yourself meeting new people confidently. If you are attending this event to meet someone specific, imagine meeting her and engaging her in a talk about her organization. See yourself exchanging business cards after she requests that you contact her later in the week. Create a positive scenario in your mind, and that will help ensure a positive outcome in reality.
- Wipe. If you get sweaty palms when you are nervous, wear something with pockets and slip a napkin or tissue inside one of them. Quickly wipe your hands on the napkin in your pocket before you shake hands. This simple step is invisible and works wonders.
- Eye contact. It’s also difficult for some people to look the other person in the eye while shaking their hand. That was hard for me when I first started working. I learned to silently tell myself as I walked up to someone, "Make eye contact … make eye contact." Continually repeating these words when I met someone helped me make eye contact a consistent habit.
- Breathe. Slow and deep breathing can help you relax. When people get nervous, they have a tendency to either hold their breath or take quick shallow breaths. Taking slow and deep breaths will help you calm down and stay calm.
- Swap cards. If you are meeting someone at a career fair or while networking, business cards often come into play. If you don’t have a business card, you can have 100 cards produced by an online printer for less than $20. This small investment boosts your professionalism. Include your contact information and a bit about yourself on the new card to enhance your job search.
- Acknowledge. When you receive a business card from someone, acknowledge the person you are meeting by taking the time to read their card before you put it away. Ask a question or make a pertinent comment about their card if it’s appropriate. I once met a human resources specialist who had Braille in addition to printed words on her card. That gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about the unusual design of her card.
- Prepare small talk. Be ready with a few comments or questions that will work for most introductions. The weather, the venue or the event you are attending can be good generic topics that will engage almost anyone in a conversation. If it’s your first time at an organization’s meeting, mention that and ask the person whom you’re meeting if he is a regular attendee. If the weather forecast for your town sounds good for the next few days, ask the person you’ve just met if he has heard the forecast.
- Take notes. It can be very difficult to meet multiple people and remember who they are a few days after a networking event. Try to take a moment after you have stopped talking with someone new and write a note about her on the back of her card. This helps me remember the person and gives me something specific to say when I meet her next or ask to connect with her on LinkedIn.
- Expand your opportunities. If you want an opportunity to practice meeting people in a less anxiety-provoking environment than an interview or networking event, consider joining a Toastmasters club. This international organization can provide you the opportunity to practice extemporaneous and public speaking while building your leadership skills and network of friends. Toastmasters clubs meet daily in towns around the world. Visit one or two clubs to get a feel for the benefits that you could derive as an active member.
- Closing. Finally, don’t forget to close that meeting effectively. Your good-bye handshake is also important. You want to leave the person you just met with a strong final impression. Tell him that it was a pleasure to meet and shake his hand firmly. Maintain eye contact during the handshake. If you said you were going to follow up with him about something, be sure you do so. Many people fail to do that, and they become part of the shadows of the many individuals someone has met. Stand out in someone’s memory by being friendly, positive and detail oriented.
Even though this is a fairly long list of tips and techniques, each one is an important piece of the puzzle that is called first contact. This information is helpful during your job search, while employed and in personal situations. You’ll be meeting new people throughout your life. Learn and integrate these steps into your life now, and they will benefit you for many years to come.
Saundra Loffredo is director of student and alumni affairs in the educational affairs department at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
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