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Carol Kinsey GomanYou’re at a business conference and you turn to 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 him. Sure, your opinion may change once you get to know the person better, but that first impression will always linger.

And, by the way, while you’re consciously and unconsciously evaluating him, he’s also making the same kind of instantaneous judgments about you.

In business interactions, first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as “likeable” or “unlikable,” 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 if she mistrusts you, she’ll suspect devious motives in 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 understand how to make those decisions work in your favour.

First impressions are more heavily influenced by nonverbal cues than verbal cues. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make 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:

Adjust your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Before you turn to greet someone or 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 embody. Attitudes that attract people include friendly, happy, receptive, patient, approachable, welcoming, helpful and curious. Attitudes that are off-putting include anger, impatience, boredom, arrogance, fear, and suspicion.

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Stand tall. Pull your shoulders back and hold your head high. This is a posture of confidence and self-esteem.

Smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable.”

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

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

Shake hands. This is the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s also the most effective. 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.)

Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person’s space. That means, in most business situations, staying 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 and positive impact by adding a single nonverbal component to a simple verbal statement. Here’s how to do it: When you meet someone and they tell you their name, find a way to repeat that name later in the conversation. And as you do, anchor the positive emotion (which your use of their 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 favourable 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!

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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