Career Advice

5 Tips for Making a Great First Impression on Freelance Clients

By Herbert Lui November 24th, 2014

No matter how introverted we may be, networking and collaboration are crucial parts of every freelancer’s job. Since editors and clients must decide whether they want to work with us, good first impressions can lead to more work, better-paying work, and a diversified client list.

Fortunately, the ability to make a great first impression is a soft skill—it can be learned. And if you know what factors typically lead to successful first impressions, that knowledge can be the difference between you landing your next client or fading into the background.

During a first meeting, there is a brief moment (around five minutes) when you and the other party will judge each other. This ability to make an assumption in a short amount of time is known as “thin-slicing.” Although it seems unfair to judge a person in an instant, this spontaneous form of decision-making may actually be as accurate as more deliberate assessments.

Here are the qualities people find appealing in first impressions, and what you can say and do to turn a handshake into a relationship.

Charisma: power, warmth, and presence

It’s a common misnomer that charisma corresponds to appearing attractive to other people. People who simply strut into a room and boast about their accomplishments are not charismatic.

Charisma is about making other people feel good about who they are; it’s not about being the star in the room. To exhibit charisma, you might focus the spotlight on someone else and show genuine interest in what they have to say. When others finish talking to you, they should feel good about themselves and want to talk to you again.

As Olivia Fox Cabane writes in The Charisma Myth, “No matter where you’re starting from, you can significantly increase your personal charisma and reap the rewards both in business and in daily life.” Cabane writes about three fundamental ingredients of charisma: power, warmth, and presence. Blending these together will help us make stronger first impressions.

In this sense, power and warmth connect to how likely you are to assist someone else. For power, do others view you as someone who has the ability to help? And for warmth, do they believe you will help them if given the chance? Both must be balanced. Power without warmth can be viewed as arrogance, and warmth without power is merely politeness.

The third factor, presence, refers to our attentiveness while engaging with others. We are often tempted with external and internal distractions. We fidget, our eyes dart, and we get sidetracked or distant due to unrelated thoughts. People want attention, and they want to be heard. Show the people you meet that you value them by being mentally and emotionally committed to a conversation. Your power, warmth, and presence will make you charismatic, not your achievements.

Influence and reciprocate

Whether we want someone to accept a story pitch or make a professional recommendation, influence is an important factor for first impressions. When we think of people who try to influence us, we often think of politicians, salespeople, and marketers. Generally, we can determine quickly whether or not other people have our best interests in mind.

Persuasion can be split up into two categories: influence and manipulation. Think of influence as treating others the way you would like to be treated, while manipulation is the act of misleading someone for personal gain.

A crucial rule in Ciadini’s six principles of influence is reciprocity. The better you are at identifying how you can help people, the more you’ll receive in return. For example, if you’re sending out an article pitch, you can influence an editor you’ve never worked with before by mentioning the reach of your social networks as a way you can help drive traffic.

However, do not offer overestimate any reciprocation. Be honest about your abilities so you can deliver on any promises. If clients can trust you after initial contact, that first impression can lead to repeat business.

Do your homework

Since we thin-slice online just as we would face-to-face, freelancers should always keep their social media profiles presentable. Anticipate that clients will try to learn as much as they can about you. And if you do meet someone in-person, after you exchange business cards, odds are they’ll research your digital footprint soon after. Ask yourself: What will they see? You should use a high-quality photo of yourself and make sure your profiles are accurate and completed.

For in-person events, preparation can minimize anxiety, boost confidence, and help you present an authoritative aura. Even preparing for a low-stress environment—like a mingler—will give you comfort and confidence in unfamiliar surroundings. When people talk to you, you’ll appear knowledgeable and interesting. It shouldn’t be much of a secret, but people often neglect preparation. A little bit of homework goes a long way.

Maintain your physical appearance

We live in a superficial world where physical image impacts how employers and clients view us. And according to a 2006 study by Princeton psychologists, we evaluate new people in about a tenth of a second.

Overall, we are drawn to vitality. Dressing well and smiling are ways to positively affect that first impression. Appearing youthful, clean, and healthy shows you are ready to embrace challenges and are capable of adapting to new environments.

A survey conducted by Elle and MSNBC reported that “attractive” people on average do in fact earn almost four percent more than “ordinary” looking people, which is further proof that thin-slicing happens at work on a regular basis.

However, as Executive Presence author Sylvia Ann Hewlett told Business Insider, “The really good news here is that it’s about polish, grooming, and being put together. It’s not about the precise shape of your body, texture of your hair, or the designer you wear.”

Regulate your micro traits

When you only have a narrow window to make a good impression, you don’t want your micro traits—or small personal habits and gestures—getting in the way.

“Firstly, knowing these type of judgments are being made—both by you and by others, and often once the interaction begins—allows you to prepare now for these interactions,” wrote Ph.D. candidate Jeff Thompson in Psychology Today.

During an interaction, try to determine which common micro-traits you repeat and decode them. Which ones are considered positive and appealing, and which ones are consider negative and unpleasant? Are you smiling? Are you stiff? Are you making eye contact? Cracking your knuckles? People observe and judge these traits on subconscious levels.

Understanding your micro-traits will give you better control of your body and help you show warmth, expressiveness, sympathy, and politeness in the right moments. You can even have someone record you during a conversation.

All freelancers should invest time learning the science behind first impressions. After all, you can only make them once.

Image by Everett Collection
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