Learning how to network successfully is a science as well as an art. It takes social skills and connections, as well as polished approaches to specific conversation topics. Regardless of how you approach networking or what aspects of it you’d like to improve, it’s undeniable that the first impression is critical and a primary element of any networking strategy you might try. In this article, you’ll learn more about the importance of first impressions and other factors that play into the science of networking.
The Importance of First Impressions
The old saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” has been proven correct again and again. It’s true that a negative first impression can be overcome (with some difficulty) and that second, third, and fourth impressions are also important. But research over the past few decades, performed in a variety of environments on a variety of participants, has consistently shown that first impressions are both powerful and pervasive. This is due to a murky combination of both social and evolutionary factors. What’s important to know as you plan your networking strategy is that positive first impressions really do matter. Here are a few examples:
Faces – In a study called “First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face,” Princeton psychologists concluded that people often draw inferences from the facial appearances of others. Researchers ran five experiments, flashing photos of strangers to participants for different lengths of time ranging from 100 to 1,000 milliseconds. Participants were asked to judge photos based on five traits: attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.
The results showed that the shortest time frame – 100 ms (or 1/10 of a second) – was all it took to form an opinion about that person’s personality traits. In fact, the longer time exposures to photographs didn’t change a participant’s opinion; it only boosted their confidence in that opinion. So, when networking, you have the mere blink of an eye to make a positive first impression.
Voices – Researchers from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, performed a study on “Personality Impressions From Brief Novel Voices.” In this experiment, 320 participants listened to recordings of 64 different men and women saying the single word “hello.” After hearing the voices, participants were asked to assign ratings on 10 personality traits, such as warmth, confidence, dominance, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness. The results showed that participants generally agreed on the “personalities” of each voice – for example, one male voice in particular was voted the least trustworthy.
“The pitch of the untrustworthy voice was much lower than the male deemed most trustworthy. [Researchers say] this is probably because a higher pitched male voice is closer to the natural pitch of a female, making the men sound less aggressive and friendlier than the lower male voices.” On the other hand, female voices were found to be more trustworthy if their voices dropped at the end of the word, which conveyed confidence.
The lesson for your networking skills is that, like with faces, you have less than a second to make a first impression with your voice. The right “hello” will go a long way.
Clothes – As Mark Twain once said, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” He’s been proven right by a 2013 study published in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, “The Influence of Clothing on First Impressions.” In this experiment, 274 participants rated four images of a male model shown from the neck down (to eliminate facial bias) based on five traits: trustworthiness, confidence, success, salary, and flexibility. The man was shown wearing either a custom-made or off-the-rack suit, with only minor differences.
The findings are somewhat complicated. They showed that the man was given all positive attributes except for trustworthiness in the images of him wearing the custom-made suit. On an interesting separate note, research participants with high salaries gave lower ratings to both types of images/suits. The networking takeaway from the study is that nicer clothing does convey a positive impression of the wearer and that even small changes in clothing can make a big difference, but first impressions will also be heavily shaped by the perspective of the other person.
Handshakes – The advice business schools and etiquette books gave you was right on target when it comes to handshakes. A University of Alabama study on “Handshaking, Gender, Personality, and First Impressions” finds that a firm handshake creates a positive first impression of both women and men. “There is a substantial relation between the features that characterize a firm handshake (strength, vigor, duration, eye contact and completeness of grip) and a favorable first impression.”
Four handshake “coders” were trained for one month on shaking hands and evaluating handshakes. These coders then evaluated the handshakes of 112 male and female college students – each participant shook hands eight times with a coder. The participants separately filled out four personality questionnaires and the reports of the coders and the participants were compared. Results showed that a person’s handshake can be tied to their personality in some ways. For example, participants with a firmer handshake were rated more positively by coders and self-reported as being more extraverted and positive minded than those with limper handshakes.
As you’re trying to perfect the science of networking, remember that a firm handshake will be favorably received, but don’t veer too far and go for the stranglehold.
Tips for Successful Networking (Beyond the First Impression)
Since we’ve confirmed that everything you’ve suspected about the importance of first impressions is true, you now know to make sure the way you look, sound, and handshake is smooth when you engage in networking. But what else can help you make meaningful connections in your industry or business? Here are some of the best things you can do to be successful at the science of networking:
Get Organized in Advance – This can encompass a variety of things, but the main point is to do your research. If you’re attending an in-person event, be sure you know what the host organization is all about and the type of audience it will attract. You should also have your elevator pitch perfected for your company, product, or whatever service you’re looking to get support for. You never want to appear unprepared or lost.
Another vital aspect of getting organized in advance is creating a targeted prospect list. You can do it the old-fashioned way, by spending hours on Google and combing your email contacts, or you can save yourself a considerable amount of time and effort using RelSci’s advanced “relationship capital” software. There are two features in particular that will help you created a focused target list to launch your networking:
- You can perform a Power Search in RelSci’s proprietary database of 6+ million influential decision makers in 2+ million organizations. Like a search engine on steroids, you can run queries by individual, industry, role, school, donation type, and more to see who you, your colleagues, and extended network are connected to.
- Path Finder uncovers the connections between all the people you, and your company, know. You can see first-degree connections and extended pathways to potential networking targets.
Pool Resources – You’re not in this alone. You have colleagues, friends, and family who have resources and connections to help you meet the right people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your existing network or reach out to that old college pal you haven’t seen in years (except on Facebook).
Not sure who knows who or how far your network really extends? RelSci’s platform is built to help individuals and companies find, build, and cultivate connections using complex algorithms that create a robust map of relationship pathways. Not only will you have access to the Power Search and Path Finder, but you can also use the Discovery Tool to get a dashboard view of your direct relationships and extended networks across an industry, location, and role. This will help you make smart decisions about who you can approach easily with a “warm” introduction.
- Be Genuine. You can’t fake enthusiasm, especially with experienced networkers. When you’re trying to build real connections, either virtually or in person, make sure you sincerely care about the situation, topic, or person. People are attracted to genuine expertise and interest – and it doesn’t necessarily need to be about your profession either. Many successful business relationships start with conversations about sports teams, aged wines, or travel stories.
- Convey Confidence, Not Desperation. If you start networking with the mindset that you really need this sale or investor or job, the person will sense it immediately and likely start running. If possible, start networking when you don’t need to and then when you do, you can emulate that same attitude. But if you are in a desperate state, focus on conveying confidence and remember that no relationship is built overnight.
- Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues. Monitor your personal nonverbal cues as well as those of the people you are networking with. This includes eye contact, posture, hand movements, etc. This will help you “read the crowd” and communicate to others that you are engaged with what they’re saying or doing.
- Ask & Listen. Whether the networking medium you’re using is email, phone, or in-person, focus on the other person and let them talk. Truly listen (don’t interrupt!) and make it a point to learn as much as you can about anyone you meet. Have a set of starter questions ready that are general and low pressure – ask about their family, hobbies, where they went to school, etc. People enjoy talking about themselves and these are more comfortable topics than if you were to launch straight into your business pitch. Plus, if you’re showing genuine interest and confidence, you’re more likely to be remembered.
- Provide Value. When learning how to network successfully, it’s important to approach the process as building a mutually beneficial relationship – you can’t just be trying to help yourself. One way to establish a “win-win” relationship when networking is to provide value first. Send someone you’re trying to connect with an article they might be interested in or make an introduction on their behalf to help them network. If you exhibit generosity and figure out how to be useful aside from your own personal agenda, it will be reciprocated.
If you’re wondering about how you can provide value in a tangible way, RelSci’s software has a tool that can help. Within the platform, you can set up 360 Alerts, which help you keep track of individuals and companies. These alerts are delivered to your inbox daily and contain news and updates like stock sales, transactions, job changes, donations, and other key professional developments not typically covered by the media. The information in the alerts will keep you closely connected with the lives of the key players and decision makers you’re interested in. You’ll get plenty of ideas on how you can legitimately reach out to someone – send them an article related to a recent financial happening they were involved in or set up a lunch or happy hour to congratulate them on a job change. With this “insider” knowledge, it will be easier to provide value and open up lines of communication as you network.
Keep Your Word
Were you supposed to hear back from a contact and haven’t yet? Did you promise to send someone information? Trust is critical to building relationships when you’re networking, so stay true to your word and follow up on anything that you left hanging, and follow through on any promises.
Learning how to network successfully is rooted in the importance of first impressions, along with several other key factors. You can master the science of networking by developing an awareness of all the things we talked about in this article, as well as using advanced tools to help you find and meet the right people for your goals.