7 Ways to Make a Great First Impression

Posted on Posted in Personal Development

In the 1990s, Head & Shoulders shampoo commercials reminded us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” They were right. After someone forms an opinion of you, it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to change it.

It turns out that first impressions are made faster than you might think. Old-School opinion was that first impressions were formed within 1 minute of meeting a person. New-School neuroscience, however, suggests that our impressions about people are made in the blink of an eye.

Malcolm Gladwell did extensive research on this phenomenon for his book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He says:

“The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lesson we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion” (85).

I’ve found that to be true. It’s why I can sense when a student is solid or shaky in their faith as soon as I meet them. It’s how I know when a parent is friendly before they tell me their name. There’s a feel that comes from talking with hundreds of students and parents through the years. No matter what they say, I know what’s really going on. So do you.

In the same way, parents and students are forming their own first impressions of you.

As a youth pastor, you need to be able to stand out in a crowd and create a great first impression. These 7 ways will help you do that.

7 Ways to Make a Great First Impression


1. Be Positive

Consider the following two youth pastors:

Brandon is upbeat. He sees the best in people, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Even when things don’t go exactly as he would’ve liked, he remains optimistic that they’ll get better.

Matt is easily agitated. He doesn’t laugh very often, except when he’s making fun of someone else. When things do go according to plan, he gets upset and focuses on all the reasons it won’t work.

Which person would you rather be around?

I bet the answer is Brandon. He has the qualities of a positive person.

Being positive isn’t about wishful thinking or not facing the facts. Positive people can be ruthlessly realistic. The difference comes down to attitude.

Your attitude is your mental outlook. It shapes – and is shaped by – what you think about and expect from other people, yourself, and your circumstances.

A research study conducted at Harvard University found that 85% of a person’s success in life is due to attitude. Only 15% of a person’s success comes from their abilities. That means your attitude has a much larger impact on your life and relationships than your intelligence, experience, and talent do.

Your attitude is also important for first impressions. We’re attracted to people who are positive. We want to be around people who expect the best. We avoid people who are negative. We don’t want to be around people who expect the worst.

When people perceive you as a positive person, they’ll respond well to you. Your positive attitude will attract them to you and help them to see you in a positive light.

2. Stand Up Straight

Your body image and body language are both affected by your posture. When you see someone slouching, what does it communicate?

Whether the person intends to or not, they’re communicating that they’re tired, disengaged, uninterested, uninteresting, closed off, and timid.

Yes, slouching says all of that.

And it doesn’t just say that about other people; it’s talking to you too. When you stand up straight, you appear more confident and open, which can help you begin to feel more confident and open in your interactions with people.

Whether you’re sitting down or standing up, slouching is bad for your body image and your body language. It even affects your health.

Here’s a simple trick to help you stand up straight:
Push your shoulders back about one inch. Nothing huge. Just a little shift.

Or maybe you sit for long periods of time. Here’s a simple trick to help you sit up straight:
Slide your chair forward as far as you can, and put your back against the chair.

You’ll be amazed at what standing up (or sitting up) straight will do for your posture…and your confidence!

3. Smile

Mother Teresa said, “I will never understand all the good a smile can accomplish.” She knew that smiling at someone is a globally recognized way of saying, “I’m glad to see you.” And here’s an interesting fact: smiling is contagious.

Two studies conducted by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden found that it’s almost impossible to frown when someone smiles at you.

You know how this works if you’ve ever owned a dog. The dog hears you come home after being at work all day. He’s so excited to see you that he practically jumps out of his own skin! You can’t help but respond in kind.

The same thing happens with babies. Even grumpy old men smile when they get a baby who is smiling and cooing with joy.

We’re happy to be around people who are happy to be around us.

When I was in seminary, I worked in a call center. I was told to smile when I was on the phone because my smile would come through in my voice. They knew what a recent Penn State University study confirmed: When we smile, we not only appear more likeable and courteous; we’re also perceived to be more competent.

If you want to make a great first impression, you have to put on a smile.

4. Be Approachable

During the 2015 Super Bowl, Doritos ran a commercial called, “Middle Seat.” It showed a man on an airplane that wanted to keep the seat next to him (the middle seat) open. To do that, the man blew his nose, clipped his toenails, and did other things to keep passengers away.

Then an attractive woman boarded the plane. The man caught her attention with a bag of Doritos, only to discover that she’s carrying her baby.

In an interview, the commercial’s creator said, “My favorite kind of comedy is the sort of comedy where you can look at it and say, “That’s funny because it’s true. If you’ve flown, you have probably been in that situation…thinking, ‘I hope they do not sit here next to me.’”

How approachable are you? When you walk around at your church, are you like the guy trying to keep people out of the middle seat? Or does your demeanor invite people in?

There are 3 things that hurt your approachability:

1) Being Rushed
When you’re moving quickly from one thing to the next, you send the signal that now is not a good time. Replace this with walking slowly through the crowd. Pay attention to each person. Greet people. Smile. Ask for someone’s name if you don’t know it already.

2) Crossing Your Arms
When you cross your arms, you send the signal that you’re defensive and resistant to people. Replace this with keeping your arms at your sides. This communicates that you’re open and willing to talk to people.

3) Looking Away
When you’re avoiding people, you look away from them. It’s like when a student doesn’t want to get called on to answer a question. They look away from the teacher. Replace this with keeping your chin up and your eyes forward.

John Maxwell says, “People miss many opportunities for connection and the chance to build deeper relationships because they do not make themselves approachable… It has everything to do with how you conduct yourself and what messages you send to others” (Winning with People, 155.)

5. Dress the Part

Three days of scruff on your face, messy hair, a wrinkled shirt, and flip flops just won’t cut it. You may work with teenagers, but you should not look like one.

Youth pastors are notorious for dressing casually. But new research shows that unless you’re at summer camp, it’s probably time to leave your t-shirts in your closet.

A professor at my seminary was fond of telling us to dress one step above everyone else in the church. He understood the point of a study by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky from Northwestern University. They discovered that people who wore a white lab coat were thought to be more professional and given more respect.

To go out and buy a white lab coat would be to miss the point (not to mention weird). The point of the study was to show that our appearance really does affect the way people view us.

We judge books by their covers and people by their appearance. It’s just how it is. As soon as you see another person, you form an opinion about them. If they have tattoos on their arms, you form an opinion. Maybe you think that’s cool. Maybe not. Maybe you think it’s rebellious. Maybe you think it’s dumb. Whatever you think, you’ve formed an opinion.

A few months ago, a guy showed up at my church wearing a tank top, overalls, tuxedo shoes, and a fedora hat. Honestly, I thought to myself, “Wow. He’s out of touch.” I’ve gotten to know him in the last couple of weeks, and he’s not as far out as I thought he might be. But my first impression of him has stuck with me. I can hardly take him seriously.

The same thing happens when people meet you.

If you haven’t shaved, then people think you’re lazy. If your hair is messy, then people think you don’t care. If your shirt is wrinkled, then people think you don’t know how to do laundry (or your job). If you’re wearing flip flops, then people think you don’t take anything seriously.

That might be the furthest thing from the truth, but it doesn’t matter. A person’s perception is their reality. That is their opinion of you. It might be wrong, but it’s true for them.

6. Shake Their Hand

When someone reaches out their hand, grab it. Grip their hand firmly and confidently, and shake it. Be sure to get the right grip. A proper handshake should last for 2 seconds. If it lasts any longer, it will feel like you’re holding hands. And that’s not okay.

The University of Alabama did a study that found a weak grip means you’re anxious, shy, and insecure. They also found that a firm grip means you’re self-assured and confident.

If you’ve met a person before, consider a two-hand grab: placing your free hand on the other person’s elbow or shoulder adds warmth and enthusiasm.

Avoid being The Dead Fish or The Bone Crusher.

The Dead Fish handshake is when you place your hand in another person’s hand in a limp way. Instead of placing your hand in someone else’s, make a concentrated effort to grasp their hand.

The Bone Crusher handshake is when you grab a person’s hand and grip it so hard that it hurts them. As a general rule, you shouldn’t grip a person’s hand any harder than you would grip a door handle. There’s no need for broken fingers during a handshake.

If someone catches you with The Crusher, a good response is, “Wow, that’s quite a grip you’ve got.” In most cases, they’ll loosen up.

A good handshake is the start of a good relationship. Grip well and you’ll go far.

7. Make Eye Contact

This takes some sensitivity to get right. On the one hand, too much eye contact can be perceived as condescending or intimidating. On the other hand, too little eye contact can be perceived as dishonest or disinterested.

As far back as Cicero (106-43 B.C.), it was recognized that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” More recently, neurological studies have found that eye contact fully activates parts of the brain that allow us to accurately process a person’s intentions toward us. No other visual cue does this as powerfully as eye contact.

Through eye contact, we’re able to know and be known. It’s essential for a good first impression.

So, what’s the right amount of eye contact?

As a general rule, if you’re familiar with the person, more eye contact is acceptable. If you’re not very familiar with the person, soften it up a bit.

One way to get this right is through mirroring. When you mirror someone, you pay attention to their tendencies and adjust yours accordingly to get in sync.

The Dale Carnegie Institute advises:

“When maintaining normal eye contact, each person looks into the other’s eyes and then away again. The speaker checks in visually with the listener, and the listener confirms understanding through meeting the speaker’s eyes. This process cycles every few seconds throughout the duration of the conversation” (The 5 Essential People Skills, 144).

The right amount of eye contact creates feelings of trust and empathy in the eyes of the person you’re meeting.

Last Thoughts on First Impressions

A major part of your job as a youth pastor involves meeting new people. Sometimes it’s parents. Sometimes it’s students. Sometimes it’s potential leaders.

Every person you meet forms an opinion of you in the blink of an eye. That opinion, their first impression, is very hard to change.

No matter how introverted or extroverted you are, these 7 things will help you stand out in a crowd and make a great first impression with everyone you meet.


Has your first impression of someone ever been wrong?

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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