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Put Your Best Foot Forward for Maximum Impact


Whether you’re networking at a career fair, introducing yourself to patients or their families, going on a job interview, or meeting colleagues for the first time at a professional association, the first few minutes of an encounter can shape the course and impact of your relationship.

Starting out on the right foot is a smart thing to do — and very much to your benefit. When people get a “good feeling” about you during an initial meeting, they’re more inclined to have confidence in you, feel comfortable with you, respect you, and cooperate with you. It’s much easier to get people to do what you want them to do, notice and listen to you, and believe that you’re a competent, credible person when you make the right first impression. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to overcome a negative first impression.

So how can you make the most of the first few minutes of any professional encounter?

Look good
First impressions start to form in seconds. There isn’t much you can say or do in that period of time, so your appearance is critical. With this in mind, you should always pay attention to your physical appearance, including your clothing, accessories, shoes, and grooming.

Like it or not, we all make judgments and assumptions about others based on the way they’re dressed — whether they’re wearing a suit, business casual attire, a uniform, or scrubs. You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but since you can’t read the book before deciding to buy it, it’s usually the cover that convinces you whether or not to do so. Clothes should be clean, pressed, and in good repair; shoes should be polished. Accessories should be simple and tasteful, and grooming impeccable. Dress your best in any professional situation. It influences people more than you realize.

Stand tall
How you walk, stand, and hold yourself makes a loud statement about who you are. Stand or sit upright, with your shoulders back and head up. Force yourself to do this, if necessary. Even if you don’t feel confident, you will appear to be when you stand tall. Give the impression of someone who is in control.

Make eye contact
Direct, frequent eye contact, without staring, is a sign of someone who is credible, confident, and friendly. Make direct eye contact when first meeting someone. Be sure to maintain good eye contact throughout any conversation. When you avoid eye contact, you’re saying, “I’m afraid of you” or “I’m hiding something” Or “I’m not confident.” Failure to make eye contact is a sure way of not getting heard.

Unless it’s inappropriate due to circumstances, smile warmly when first meeting someone. A smile shows that you’re friendly, confident, and trustworthy. A frown says, “Something is wrong.” A blank expression might convey fear, intimidation, or apathy.

Shake hands
The handshake is an important social custom in American society.. Use a full, firm handshake when meeting people. A weak, limp, or absent handshake may indicate that you’re not trustworthy or that you lack confidence.
Shake hands with everyone you meet. I particularly encourage you to start shaking hands with your patients, when appropriate, and their families. It’s a sign of respect. Be sure to smile and make direct eye contact while shaking hands. It’s a three-prong process.

Make small talk
You might talk about the weather, the event you’re attending, or some other superficial topic with someone you’ve just met. Small talk serves as an ice-breaker between two people. For example, if you’re attending a professional association meeting for the first time, you might ask the person sitting next to you, “Have you been to these meetings before?” While small talk would not be appropriate in serious situations, it’s essential in most day-to-day contacts. Individuals who skip this process are often thought to be too direct and overbearing.

Introduce yourself
Always state your name and, depending on the situation, your title and credentials. On a job interview, you need only state your name because a prospective employer already knows your background. However, when talking to a recruiter at a job fair, it would be good to say, “My name is Janet Evans. I’m an RN with critical care experience.” If you work in a patient care area, introduce yourself by name and state your credentials. Example: “My name is Janet (or Ms. Evans). I’m a registered nurse. I’m the nurse in charge of your care this evening.” If meeting a professional colleague at a meeting, you might say: “Hi, I’m Janet Evans. I do case management for Aetna U.S. Healthcare” Or “I’m Janet Evans a new graduate nurse.” Don’t remain a nameless, generic entity in the background. Let people know who you are.

Use caution
Some of you may be thinking, “This advice doesn’t apply in every situation because people from some cultures don’t shake hands or use strong eye contact.” You’re absolutely right, and as nurses you’re obligated to learn about these differences and modify the rules as appropriate. Read the CE article “The Uncommon Handshake” for more on this topic.

Learn to be in control of the signals you send out. When you manage the impression you make, you will immediately see positive results in your professional life. You’ll feel more confident and in control, too. I look forward to shaking your hand when we meet!


About Author

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, well-known career guru, is’s “Dear Donna” and author of “Your First Year as a Nurse: Making the Transition from Total Novice to Successful Professional” and “The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses: Practical Advice for Thriving at Every Stage of Your Career.” Information about the books is available at and, respectively. To ask Donna your question, go to Find a “Dear Donna” seminar near you: Call 800-866-0919 or visit

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