How to make a great first impression on almost anyone

Knowing how the brain works can help you wow people and be less boring in interviews and at networking events, says Vanessa Van Edwards in her book “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.”

How to make a great first impression on almost anyone

Ever wish you could read minds, to figure out how to get someone to like and remember you—and maybe even hire you, or refer you to your dream job?

Author Vanessa Van Edwards, head of Seattle-based behavior research lab The Science of People and a self-proclaimed “recovering boring person,” isn’t a mind reader. But she has the next best thing: 14 neuroscience-based “behavior hacks,” which were tested in thousands of real-life situations, and can help you make a great impression on almost anyone.

“There are hidden rules to human behavior,” she writes in Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, “As diverse as we all seem on the outside, our inner workings are quite similar, if not eerily predictable.”

Consider, for instance, the handshake. “Never, ever skip a handshake,” writes Van Edwards. “Don’t replace it with a wave, a high five, or—heaven forbid—a fist bump.” How come? Skin-to-skin contact with someone’s whole hand, research shows, causes the brain to release a burst of oxytocin, a powerful hormone that sparks a sense of connection.

Monster recently spoke with Van Edwards about a few of the other tips in Captivate to make you more, well, captivating.

Q.  Besides a handshake, you point out that what we do with our hands is crucial to making a strong first impression. Why?

A.  Some things neuroscience has discovered recently have not really changed since caveman days, and this is one of them. Long ago, you had to be able to see someone’s hands to know if they were friend or foe—if they carried a spear or a rock, or were empty-handed and harmless. It’s strange, but even now, our subconscious minds still do not trust people whose hands we can’t see. At a networking event or in a job interview, keep your hands out of your pockets and don’t keep them hidden under, say, a briefcase or a purse.

One thing that’s very effective is using your hands to emphasize points you’re making, such as bringing your two hands together when you’re talking about uniting a team. You don’t want to overdo it, but the extra information conveyed by gestures can help people understand you, and remember you.

Q.  In the book, you suggest asking questions you call “conversation sparkers.” Why are these important?

A. Conversations that engage us and get us thinking cause a little rush of the pleasure hormone dopamine in the brain, and that’s what will really make you stand out. Try to avoid predictable small talk. We did some networking experiments where we tested the appeal of seven different questions on 300 people, and the two that came out at the very bottom of the list were the ones people usually ask: “How are you?” and “What do you do?” 

Try, “What was the highlight of your day?” or, ask something less work-related, such as, “What personal passion project are you working on?” or, “Have anything exciting coming up in your life?”—and watch the other person’s face light up. The study found that because those were the most unusual answers, they were more fun for people to answer.

Q. Does this apply to job interviews, too?

A. Oh, yes!  Don’t ask any question simply because you think you “should.”  It’s better to ask things that will get an interviewer out of autopilot—something they aren’t expecting. “What’s your favorite part of your job?” is good, or “What do people not know about this company that I should know?” Of course, before asking that second one, make sure you’ve researched the company and read their website. Prospective employers do research on you, so it’s smart to return the favor.

Q. If you had to choose one piece of advice for job hunters, based on all of the research cited in Captivate, what would it be?

A.  I think it would be, “Don’t over-rehearse.” There’s an enormous amount of scientific evidence that people respond to someone who’s genuine, who’s giving a fresh, original answer to a question, or making a point that’s unique. Many people practice for interviews so much ahead of time that everything they say comes across as scripted and fake, and they lose all of the passion from their voice, so the interviewer feels they aren’t getting “the real you.”  Don’t do that. Be a real human.


Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics for Fortune and other publications since 1996. She is the author of  If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?