How to Make a Powerful First Impression

Making a great first impression is critical. It sends a clear message to people about who you are and how you expect to be treated.

Training Magazine

Excerpt Credit: This article is excerpted from A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space by Eliza VanCort (Berrett-Koehler, 2021).

Networking is, at its core, connecting with people, and once people form an initial impression of you, it’s very hard to walk back from that impression. You will attract powerful people into your life when you lead with power. Here’s how to do that right from the start.

Making a great first impression is critical. It sends a clear message to people about who you are and how you expect to be treated. There is no room for being small when you first meet someone. You need to throw down your expectations about how the relationship will move forward like a boss. You must expand your presence, not contract it.

Throw It Down Right from the Start!

The following are the three component parts to those first few seconds when you meet someone. Achieve all five and you set the stage for an equitable, respectful relationship where you can expand without fear of pushback.

Your Eyes

Eye contact is critical, and for introverts, sustained eye contact with a new person can be very challenging. If you are an introvert, follow the advice I give to my clients: if your eyes don’t feel like they are on fire, you are probably doing it wrong.

  • Don’t look down
    When I do role play in first meetings with my clients, particularly women, they often look down at the floor several times while moving in for the initial handshake. This immediately sets up an uneven power dynamic, and you will not be the one on top.
  • Don’t blink.
    Many people respond to not looking down by suddenly blinking rapidly. Rapid blinking makes you look untrustworthy.
  • Maintain eye contact.
    Look at the other person, holding their gaze. You will look confident even if you’re not.

For some, all of this may feel a bit odd. People don’t have this level of intense eye contact in everyday life very often. If you feel a little odd, you are most definitely doing it right.

Your Body
Claim space by opening up your body. Some women have a tendency to physically shrink when meeting new people. It’s a way of saying, “Don’t hurt me! I’m not threatening.” Of course, if some people think they can boss you around, they most certainly will. Never, never shrink when first meeting someone.  

  • Make sure you have excellent posture. Try this quick trick for squaring your shoulders: Raise your shoulders up toward your ears, and pull them way back without rolling them down. Keeping them back, push your shoulders down. Inhale deeply and slowly exhale while you stop actively pulling your shoulders back.
  • Keep your face open and at least moderately friendly. I’m not advocating a nervous, diminishing perma-smile here. Nerves can cause us to scowl or squint. Unless you’re trying to scare the person, try to avoid this. There is an unfair double standard when it comes to smiling. Women are told to smile all the time, even when they have every reason not to, and men are not expected to smile. My clients of all genders make better impressions, resulting in better outcomes when they smile during those first critical seconds. That said, if smiling goes against your belief system, I do get it. If you can make not smiling work for you, please email me with all the details. I love to be proven wrong. Disclaimer: I will shamelessly steal your strategies.
  • A strong handshake. I owe my firm handshake to my dad, who drilled handshaking badassery into my head from the time I was a little girl. When I was growing up, my dad was high up in our local government. His position offered him plenty of opportunities to introduce me to reporters or other leaders in our community. “Go ahead, Eliza!” he’d say proudly. “Say hello and introduce yourself with a nice firm handshake!” Today, I relish that moment when I shake a man’s hand as firmly as he shakes mine. At first, they usually look a bit surprised, but immediately their surprise morphs into respect. Women tend to have weaker, more tentative handshakes than men. This is a real handicap—it’s as if we are starting every interaction by showing our necks. Here’s how to shake hands as my dad taught me.
    • Match the strength of your handshake with the person you’re meeting. (This will be readily apparent!)
    • If their handshake is very weak, be just a little stronger. (Unless your goal is to intimidate, which can be a legit goal at times, don’t crush their hand.)
    • If someone seems bent on breaking your hand, game on! (When this happens to me, I squeeze their hand as hard as I possibly can until they back down. This may feel aggressive. It is, but so is attempting to crush someone’s bones.)

Even though a strong handshake is a relatively aggressive communication posture, handshakes are the one-piece of communication where overt aggression rarely has negative consequences for women. I have never experienced pushback from someone after laying on my strongest vice grip, nor have my clients. We’ve only been treated with more respect.

Your Communication

The final component to claiming space with others is twofold. Firstly, own yourself by owning your name. Names have great power. Embrace that power. Secondly, understand the nature of help and don’t think of it as a bad word. Help build community. Community sustains us.

Say Your Name with Conviction!

There is no more important moment than when you tell someone your name. How you say it will have as much or more impact than the quality of your handshake. Here are the two things to remember about the verbal component of introductions.

  • Say it loud. Say your chosen introductory platitude, “How nice to meet you!” for example, with a volume slightly louder than you speak in conversational speech. Most importantly, do not speak more quietly than usual, as some of us are apt to do, especially in high-stakes introductions.
  • Say it proud. I said it in my TEDx. I say it when giving talks or running seminars. I say it when coaching and when parenting my kids. Your name is your power! Mumbling when saying your name, or allowing someone to mispronounce your name, is the first step on the slippery slope of ceding your power to another human. Often people mispronounce my name. They say “Uh-liza” or “Ah-liza” rather than “Eeeeliza.” When I was younger, I’d let it slide. Today, I always take a moment to be sure folks say my name as my mama intended. “Actually, it’s Eeeeliza.” When I first started doing this, I worried that asking folks to say my name correctly would result in some sort of Mad Max–worthy communication apocalypse. Much to my delight, quite the opposite happened. As with a firm handshake, I was treated with more respect.

You tell a story about who you are, how you feel about yourself, and exactly how much space you believe you have a right to claim every time you look into someone’s eyes for the first time, reaching out your hand to shake theirs. Be sure the story you’re telling is the one you want to tell. Let your message always be this: “It’s nice to meet you. My name is ____. I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m your equal. Treat me as such, and I’ll do the same for you.”

Greet like a boss. You’ll be treated like a boss.

Eliza VanCort
Eliza VanCort is an in-demand consultant, speaker, and writer on communications, career and workplace issues, and women’s empowerment. The founder of The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca, she is also a Cook House Fellow at Cornell University, an advisory board member of the Performing Arts for Social Change, a Diversity Crew partner, and a member of Govern For America's League of Innovators. She is author of A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space (Berrett-Koehler, 2021).