Everyone wants to make a good first impression. Whether you are at a job interview, a conference or a date, you want to put your best foot forward. Although it can be intimidating, a well-crafted introduction can set the tone for the rest of your experience.
It all begins with finding an area where your story intersects with the other’s. When you are able to find common ground and establish a shared context, you begin to break down the invisible barrier that is naturally there when you meet someone for the first time. When you are meeting someone in a professional setting, you are either trying to buy or sell something: your skills, your services, or your product. The default framework of a professional setting is often transactional. While this practical framework is often how business transactions are made, it can be very dry and purely functional. However, when you establish a shared framework, you begin to build a relationship and create trust.
To establish a shared framework, context is everything. There are different kinds of professional settings, each of which requires a different nuance that must be included in your introduction. When I worked with management trainees, I found that including humor and not taking myself too seriously were good ways to lighten the mood and connect with the trainees. I also shared anecdotes of my experiences in college and compared it to their experiences. This broke down the invisible barrier between us and helped me build a relationship with the trainees. However, this approach would not be as effective if I were talking to a board member or regulator. It may come across as casual and unprofessional.
After you have determined your audience and approach, you can begin to craft your introduction. It is ideal to limit your introduction to no more than 10 to 15 seconds. If the person wants to know more about you, they will ask. The idea is to keep your introduction short and relevant, keeping in mind the context in which you are meeting the individual. The last thing you want is for someone to wish for you to stop talking because you are babbling on about irrelevant information.
The best way to ensure that the content of your introduction is relevant is to use the context of your conversation as the foundation on which you build your introduction. It would be pointless to bring in information that is irrelevant to your meeting. The other person does not need to know every detail about how you arrived at where you are today. It is irrelevant to your current job. So, it is most important to focus on the present, what you currently do for a living, and why it is important to the person to whom you are speaking.
Regardless of who you are speaking to, never talk up or talk down. When you meet someone for the first time, focus on being respectful, which will act as an equaliser. Eastern cultures have this embedded in our social fabric. Whether it’s “samman” in India or losing/saving face in other parts of Asia, this process is critical to making a good first impression. Gratuitous praise causes discomfort and loss of face and is the most frequent manifestation of talking up. If you want an example of talking down (and I am sure most of us have been talked down to at least once), watch the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts goes to the stores on Saks Fifth Avenue the first time. It is important to treat each person with respect in order to build a good foundation for your relationship.
If you are introducing yourself in a professional setting, keep your language simple and contextual to you and your company. You could lose the interest of the person if you use slang and jargon that they may not understand.
When crafting your introduction, it is ideal to start with the most inclusive part of your story and then move towards something more exclusive. As an example, the way I have constructed my introduction is to outline the various sectors I’ve worked in – FMCG, Financial Services and Media and Entertainment – rather than naming specific companies. This approach allows me to connect to a broader audience especially if I am speaking at a conference. It is unfortunate that we live in an era where people tend to create more division than inclusion. Because of this, it is important for your introduction with something that the other person can relate to, so that he can find common ground with you and gain interest in your story.
If you start by defining yourself from the largest ecosystem to which you belong and then work down to the smallest ecosystem, you are more likely to find greater points of overlap and convergence with the people around you. The more points of overlap there are, the more inclusive and tolerant you will appear to be. Conversations flow from finding multiple points of overlap, so if you start with an expansive rather than reductive approach in your introduction, the other person will be more likely to dig deeper and gain interest in your story.
Some people tend to project the quality they most identify with in their introduction. While there are times when this may be appropriate, it is important to pay attention to the context to determine if you should present a certain quality about yourself. For someone who is opinionated, it would be appropriate to include this quality in their introduction if they are at a debate. If, however, this same person attends a conference about peace and harmony in this world, then it would be inappropriate to state that they are opinionated, regardless of how true it may be. The context matters.
When you want to sound smart, it may be tempting to use jargon and colloquialisms. To a select few who understand your language, it may be effective. However, more often than not, your jargon and colloquialisms will fall on deaf ears. The more you try to fluff up your introduction, the less likely you will be able to effectively communicate your identity to the other person. Unnecessary jargon and colloquialisms will only lead to wasted time. Be simple and concise so that the other person can get a clear picture of who you are and what you do.
Wherever your job may take you, it is important to be aware of the cultural nuances of the people you are meeting. For example, the Japanese are known for a respectful business culture that involves presenting your business card to someone with two hands. If I am meeting with Japanese professionals, I am careful to replicate this gesture to show respect for their culture.
However, this is not a hard and fast rule for my business culture if I am meeting with someone from another culture. It is likely that the person may take my card with one hand and slips it in his pocket only for it to be crumpled and thrown away later. This would not offend me because I do not hold him to the Japanese standard. So, if you are aware of the culture of the other person, you are less likely to be offended by his actions.
In 1999, I experienced a culture shock that I would never forget. I had just started working at Thomas Cook. As part of my induction, I had to travel to London for three weeks to attend a training program. After arriving in London on Sunday, I had to meet my bosses the next morning. Because the India HR representatives had not been appointed, I met with the India CEO, who introduced me to the person whom he wanted me to meet.
As I walked into the room, a 45-year-old woman said, “Hello Animesh!”. As she stood up, she greeted me with two kisses on either cheek. I was flabbergasted! This would have never happened in India. I have never been as embarrassed or felt as awkward as I was at the point of time. I had no clue that this was part of her culture. That said, it is vital to do some research about the culture of the person you are meeting so that you can avoid stepping on his toes or being offended by his actions or lack of.
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Chief People Officer