1. What’s the key to making a good first impression when meeting someone for the first time?
When you meet someone for the first time, there are basic things you need to nail to make a good impression. I call these the table stakes. Be early, dress to impress, be polite, and don’t get distracted by your gadgets! I’m assuming you have these covered. Now let’s level up. Always remember your goal: be memorable in a positive light. Otherwise why bother?
Assuming you’re asking for work related reasons (and not dating because that’s for a future column ;-P), do your homework. Find out as much as you can about this person online or otherwise and find mutual interests. Affinity is the glue that binds us. Know their hobbies, their interests, and rehearse the topics or content you know they like to talk about. As Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”
If you haven’t been able to do any research and meet the person cold, then establish affinity and build rapport as quickly as possible. What’s the easiest way to do this? Stick with the advice I give my kids. Human beings were given two ears but only one mouth. Why? Because nature intended that you use your ears twice as much as your mouth. So listen!
Ask questions. Don’t get distracted by your phone. People have a sixth sense and know if they are your focus. Make them your center of attention. When a topic comes up, listen then try to say something insightful. Sometimes just a nod and acknowledgement is all it takes to start cracking the ice. Have some go to topics that you use as conversation starters. Practice on your friends, your significant other, maybe even your pets. Be sure to pull these out if you feel the conversation is heading into Boring Town.
Oh, and one last tip. Unless you want to potentially go off the rails, don’t ever start with politics or religion. Those are the third rail of first time meetings.
2. Sometimes I get asked questions I don’t want to answer. How do I answer it without telling a lie?
If you get asked a question you don’t want to answer you have a few options:
– Break Glass. Be very direct and say “I don’t want to answer that question.” Only choose this option if you are fine with the interrogator assuming the worst. They will. So if you feel that the worst thing they can imagine is still better than the reality, then choose this option.
– Half-Truth. Answer with a half-truth. Don’t lie but don’t give the whole answer if it’s going to get you in trouble. For instance, if asked “Were you fired from your last job?” answer with, “We agreed to mutually separate.” If the question is, “What would your ex-boss say about your work?” and you know you were a terrible employee, answer with, “We had a difference of opinion.”
Of course, this can backfire. I find half-truth answers to be evasive and can do more harm than good. However, they do work for a lot of people – particularly politicians who answer with half-truths all the time. They push the interrogator to a point where they simply give up and move on.
– Own It. The best option, in my view, is to fess up. Unless you killed someone, it can’t be that bad. I would answer the question truthfully but then explain the situation or reason for your response. None of us is perfect and the saying, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” is very apropos particularly in the business world where many have done shameful things to get ahead. Lead with the truth, but spin doctor it to reduce the negative impact. Then let the chips fall where they may.
None of these are perfect options when you want to evade answering the question. But remember, the truth always comes out in the end. Might as well get it over with.
3. I’m not good at trivia, but sometimes that sort of knowledge can impress and help carry a conversation. Any advice on the best way to improve my conversations?
Trivia and other chit chat is part of what we routinely refer to as “small talk.” The phenomenon of small talk was initially studied in 1923 by Bronisław Malinowski who found that it is a social skill and type of social communication. You may consider it painful, and even useless, but he found that it does serve a function. It helps bond people and allow strangers to suss out other’s roles in society. I think it helps humans determine if you are friend or foe, predator or prey.
My general guidance is to focus on ways to build affinity. There are a few ways to do this:
– Find Commonalities. Do some probing to determine where there might be commonalities between you and the other person. If you followed my advice on first impressions, you may have done some research on the group attendees. If not, listen and learn. Then listen again.
– Have Go To Topics. Have at least a half dozen conversation starters ready to go. This can be friends, places, or subjects. If it is a local party, places are a safe bet. Housing prices, schools, neighborhood trends are all good fodder for conversation. With almost anyone, food is a great topic. For instance, with my Asian American friends, finding authentic ethnic cuisine is like discovering gold. Personally, I am in constant search for the best egg tart, lumpia, or black sesame ice cream in the San Francisco Bay Area. Finding and sharing that carnal knowledge with others is a recipe for establishing a relationship.
– Find Groups. For those of you who are more naturally introverted, find comfort in the warmth of others. Join a group having a conversation. That way you don’t need to dominate the airtime. In fact, just being present and listening can be a great way to participate in a conversation. No one is expecting you to carry the day like a talk show host.
– Practice. Finally, like all things in life, conversations and chatting with strangers gets easier with time. Don’t shy away from it. Practice with friends and you’ll be an old hat in no time.
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About the Author
Dave is a seasoned executive and entrepreneur who founded several companies in entertainment, investments, and technology, and worked on Wall Street for almost 25 years.
He started his career by joining a fledgling investment bank, Jefferies, when it had less than 200 employees. Today, Jefferies is a multi-billion dollar diversified public company (NYSE:JEF). He rose from the entry level position of Analyst to Group Head of Internet and Digital Media and was one of the youngest Managing Directors in firm history. As one of the only managing directors of color in the firm, he successfully broke through the Bamboo Ceiling. He not only worked hard but also played the corporate game.
Hundreds of bankers have worked for Dave during his career. He has mentored many of them who have gone on to some of the best business schools and companies in America. He is eager to share his knowledge with Asian Americans and other disadvantaged groups seeking to maximize their potential and achieve their career goals.