Part of being a professional is meeting new people. They can be across your company, within the same industry, across industries, the possibilities are endless. Meeting new people in any arena is the first step to networking (an overall area in which I admittedly struggle), and can be the start of successful or rocky relationships. This post isn’t to say that you can’t come back from a bad first impression, rather let’s aim to make a good impression to start so that we don’t have to worry about recovering later. Let’s discuss the key points for making a good first impression, following up, and maintaining privacy.
There are three key areas I consider when meeting someone for the first time: handshake, eye contact, and how or why I’m meeting this person. This may seem obvious to some, but could be new information to others, give the person a firm handshake with the entire palm of your hand. When you go to shake someone’s hand, you shouldn’t just barely be touching them and you definitely shouldn’t try to squeeze the life out of their hand. In a good shake, your palm meets the other person’s palm and your fingers firmly cup that person’s hand. If you have to stretch a bit to reach the person the actual shaking motion comes from your shoulder, if you’re fairly close to the person that motion comes from your elbow. An appropriate handshake shouldn’t be more than a few seconds. If it’s longer than that, you’re in slightly odd territory.
Eye contact is something that can be very tricky to some and come naturally to others. Whether you’re shaking somebody’s hand or listening to them speak, you should try and make some eye contact. This doesn’t mean that you have to stare into that person’s eyes, but you should feel comfortable occasionally looking them in the eyes and to assure them that you’re listening and what they’re saying is important to you. If you’re a more timid person, doing this may be counterintuitive to you, in which case you’ll have some homework by practicing with people you already know and feel comfortable. Listen to what the other person is saying, detect the tone in their voice, and when they’re emphasizing something, look them in the eyes.
How you’re meeting the person you’re speaking to can give great context to what their interests are or professional expertise is. If you think about the setting in which you’re meeting this person: formal, informal, casual like a happy hour, formal like an awards ceremony, you already have a bit of insight to their passions. Conversely, they could just be there out of obligation, in which case you’ll find out by talking to them. If you’re somewhere you feel your personal passions are strongly represented, then you’re more likely to meet people with whom you’ll have an organic connection. Consider starting a conversation based on how good the event is, the content, or even the food and drinks. Sometimes you’ll be introduced by way of a friend or coworker where you may want to briefly consider why you’re being introduced to this person. These predestined meetings can be great in that you make a connection and everyone will benefit at some point in the future. Make sure you don’t put all of your eggs in this basket and hope you just get introduced to people because sometimes these meetings lead to nothing and you and the other person have nothing in common and wouldn’t work well together. Nobody knows you like you, so you have to go out there and meet people you think you’d like to know or get to know.
Once a conversation is finished, before leaving, get the person’s contact information. This can be a LinkedIn profile link, email address, website, or phone number. First things first, don’t be offended if someone doesn’t give you their phone number. Not everyone feels comfortable giving out such a personal piece of information to a stranger. LinkedIn has become a very popular option for staying in touch because you can connect to that person, communicate via InMail, see if you have any common connections, and decide if you’d like to communicate more personally via email or phone. Typically it’s best to follow up in the next 24-72 hours depending on the circumstances so that you’re not forgotten and the conversation (and person) are still pretty fresh in your mind. If I can be completely honest, I have not been good at this. I’ve missed out on so many great connections because I forgot to follow up or got caught up in something else that did NOT benefit me at all in the long run. Learn from my mistakes: follow up shortly after meeting or set a reminder for yourself to follow up if you know you might forget. If you’re sending an email, make it concise but memorable. Thank the other person for their time and the good conversation. In some cases, this might be someone you didn’t meet directly, in which case you can mention the event you both attended or the talk that they gave and what you took from it. If you spoke to them directly about something poignant, briefly mention it in the email. For example, “I enjoyed hearing your views on the how to improve the education system in NYC. I’d love to connect and help by implementing some of those ideas in my school.” Disclaimer: I am not a teacher or school administrator, but you get the gist. If you didn’t have the opportunity to provide your contact information, now is your chance. Drop a line saying you’d like to connect via email or phone, if you’re that bold, because you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Don’t be afraid of rejection because it happens to everyone and the worst someone can say is no.
With the world being the way it is now I wanted to make sure I touched on how to maintain your privacy. Be careful when providing any personal information about yourself. I usually start out by just providing my email address or LinkedIn and if I keep in contact with the person, it may progress to a phone conversation and potentially a friendship. When you first meet someone, don’t go in with the assumption that you’ll be friends right away or expect too much too soon. When you first start your career, it can be exciting to meet so many people, especially those who seem to be doing very impressive things, but keep your guard up to protect yourself. Don’t give too much information about yourself such as where you live (exact address), names and occupations of family members, or any personal identifying numbers (drivers license number, SSN, any ID numbers of any kind). Not everyone is bad or has malicious intentions, but it’s much easier to put safeguards in place so that you don’t have to find out the hard way who’s out to get you. Stay smart and stay safe while you’re interviewing, networking, and just generally out and about.
Pro tip: if you would like to communicate with people via phone and not have to give out your personal cell number, sign up for Google Voice. It’s free to make and receive US based calls and texts if you have an internet connection and will assign you a phone number with the area code of the region you select (if there are any available). You can opt to have it ring directly to your phone as well as send texts directly to your phone as if you’re receiving a normal phone call or text directly to your number. Don’t worry, people can also leave voicemails to your Google Voice number and you’ll be alerted to any missed calls.