When you’re meeting new people it’s important to make a good first impression. But it’s not all about what you say. In fact your body language can give another person more clues about the type of person you are than the words you speak.

Many experts believe people make assessments of others within just a few seconds of observing their behaviour – a practice often called ‘thin’ slicing. Most also agree that if you make a negative first impression, it can take a considerable amount of effort to recover.

Psychologists, communication gurus and body language experts have lots of advice on how to make a good first impression. One of the simplest and most effective methods to remember uses the acronym SOFTEN.

S is for smile

Smiling says many things about a person. It makes you look happy, positive, charming and approachable, as well as confident and enthusiastic. A smile lets other people know you’re not a threat. And when you smile at someone, they usually smile back.

On the other hand if you don’t smile when you’re introduced to someone, it can make you look bad tempered, nervous and uncomfortable – which probably isn’t the impression you would choose to make.

It’s also important to try to make sure your smile is natural and genuine. Most people can easily spot a fake smile and as a result they may think you’re being insincere. A genuine smile doesn’t just involve the muscles around the mouth, but also those in the cheeks and around the eyes. Indeed, one of the key components of a natural smile is movement of the orbicularis oculi muscles, the muscles that surround the eyes (this explains the saying ‘smile with your eyes’).

O is for open body language

If you want to seem confident and interested in someone, try to make sure your body language is open rather than closed. For instance, closed body language is where you have your arms crossed in front of your chest or stomach, your legs crossed or your body turned away from the person you’re talking to.

Instead, keep your arms at your sides, face the other person directly, and use open gestures (for instance, keep your palms open and upwards rather than clenched, clasped or crossed). This will help send a signal that you’re open and receptive to the other person and what they have to say.

F is for forward lean

Leaning slightly towards someone, whether sitting or standing, is also seen as a sign that you like them and find them interesting. Try not to overdo it though, and stay relaxed. You could try tilting your head towards them slightly, or lean towards them a little (if you’re standing, just bend the knee that’s closest to them rather than lurching in their direction). Imagine you’re trying to listen to them more intently.

Meanwhile if you lean back or move away from them, the extra distance between you can signal you don’t like them or you’re not interested in what they have to say.

T is for touch

Touch is important, but it’s also easy to get wrong when you’re meeting somebody new. In a professional situation, the first thing you may do when you’re introduced to someone for the first time is to shake their hand. Indeed, we tend to read a lot into a hand shake – too soft and we may be seen as being weak, and too firm can make us look aggressive and dominating.

The ideal hand shake is arguably somewhere between the two. Stand slightly closer than arm’s length (your elbow should be bent when you shake), keep your hand straight (don’t turn your palm up or down), make a good connection and shake for 1 or 2 seconds (2 shakes is usually about right for most people, though this can vary in different cultures).

In social situations an occasional light, quick touch on someone’s hand or the outside of their elbow or shoulder can help build rapport – though again, be careful not to offend by making your touch linger too long and make sure that by touching them you’re not intruding their personal space.

E is for eye contact

Direct eye contact is another important part of making a good impression. If you don’t meet someone’s gaze when you meet them, you’ll appear shy, nervous or even untrustworthy. There again if you make eye contact for too long, you’ll look as if you’re staring, which can make the other person feel uncomfortable.

Body language experts recommend looking directly into someone’s eyes for as long as it takes for you to notice their eye colour before looking away again. This, they claim, is just about the right time to make them feel they’re making a connection with you. Then keep meeting their gaze every now and then during your conversation.

There may be an added advantage to looking someone in the eye. According to one study from Loyola Marymount University, direct eye contact may help other people see you as more intelligent. But be aware that in some cultures, direct eye contact is seen as intrusive and rude.

N is for nod

Nodding can also help you build rapport with someone you’re meeting for the first time as it’s a friendly expression that shows you’re attentive and agreeable. A slow, single, gentle nod while shaking hands for the first time can help you make a positive impression. Also a few nods while the other person is speaking can signal you’re listening carefully and want to hear more, while making them feel they’re being understood. And of course nodding can also signal that you agree with what the other person’s saying.

As with most body language principles, the SOFTEN approach may not feel natural when you first start using it. But with a bit of practice you’ll soon master it and make great first impressions, whatever the situation.

Find out about more ways to boost your impact and manage how other people see you by joining us on our free Develop your personal brand course. You can attend a full-day course or work through the modules online at your own pace.

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