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Whenever a new client arrives, my first impression occurs in approximately 6 seconds. It happens quickly since it’s part of my job to analyze what an interviewer might think of a client.

The look in a client’s eyes is most important, followed by facial and head movement. Together, they reveal energy, confidence, fear and complex emotions. That’s why I work only one-on-one – because no two people are alike. Since they are seeking coaching, I do not expect them to be polished and interview-ready. Apprehension is normal, so I cordially welcome gently.

When a client makes eye contact, has a real smile and has a head straight-on, it says, “Yes, I’m ready to try.” Those with wandering eyes, though, suggest doubt or reluctance. Add in a blank expression and a head tipped to the side – signifying lack of interest – and all of that could mean “No, not ready … yet.” But all of this just sets the starting bar for what we need to work on for this client’s success.

Next, the handshake and first few words expand that initial impression to 30 seconds. The handshake is critical. A weak, sloppy handshake can leave a range of impressions from fear to boredom to “I don’t think you’re worth it.” None of these impressions is helpful for goals. Conversely, a hard, bone-crushing grip can backfire, revealing nerves or over-ambition and possibly causing real hand pain.

Both types of handshake are especially counterproductive when the interviewer is a younger potential boss of either gender or a senior female potential boss. The younger may think the bone-crusher is dominating. The senior may think the weak, sloppy handshake is an insult. Remember, that “little old lady” on the end chair at the scholarship panel interview may be writing the biggest check! Her generation broke the “glass ceiling,” and she may expect to be respected for it. Thus, a weak handshake, from a man, can seem degrading or, from a young woman, a disappointment. Neither impression gets the scholarship.

The way to go is in the middle. A strong hand, direct eye contact, three shakes, each the same for every interviewer regardless of age or gender, and a smile with curiosity for a new adventure.

One minute in, you’re seated in my office, where impressions grow and change through mutual respect and learning. Gradually, natural gestures come out that show your personality. Good! But never underestimate that first impression. Overcoming it later can be tough. With a good start, the race is always easier.

Janis Murray is president of Murray Prep LLC, providing communication training for individuals seeking college admission and career advancement. She works with students and professionals, creating successful strategies, résumés, cover letters, essays, and image and interview/presentation performances. Contact her at jmurray@murrayprep.com.

Janis Murray is president and owner of Murray Prep LLC, providing communication training for students and professionals seeking success since 1999. Based in St. Louis, she currently works with clients in nine states, Europe and Asia.

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