Career Sphere

Presenting yourself professionally

Suppose you need a can of soup and stop at the grocery store to get it on your way home from work. On the shelf are two soup cans. One is dented with a torn label; the other is in perfect condition. Which one would you choose? The perfect one, of course. What if the damaged can is on sale? Most likely you’d still pick the perfect can.

It’s the same with people: First impressions matter. Don’t make someone question your competence by presenting yourself in an unprofessional way. This article describes how to impress people right off the bat, including how to make proper introductions and how to dress professionally.

First impressions

You’ve probably spent a lot of time and money on your nursing education; now you’re a competent, experienced nurse. But that’s not all it takes to advance your career to the next level. In the competitive work world, you need to make a positive first impression. Some people say it takes 15 seconds to make a first impression and the rest of your life to undo it. Following what etiquette experts call the "rule of 12" can ensure your first impression is a good one.

  • First 12 words: The first 12 words you speak should be some form of thanks, praise, or a compliment (if appropriate). For instance: "It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for the lunch invitation."
  • First 12 steps: Your first 12 steps should show vim, vigor, and vitality. Don’t drag your feet. Walk with a purpose.
  • First 12" from the top of your head down: Your first 12" should reflect impeccable grooming. Is your hair wet or falling into your face? Avoid nervous and distracting gestures, such as touching your hair.
  • First 12" from the floor up: Your first 12" from the floor up should be impeccable, too. What do your shoes look like? If they’re dusty and worn-looking, they’ll detract from a professional image. Your shoes should be polished. Your stockings or socks should blend with your outfit, not detract from it. Many people look at a person’s shoes and make an opinion about attention to details.

Make introductions correctly

Who hasn’t felt awkward during some introductions? Establishing a professional presence often begins with your introduction. Whether you’re introducing yourself to someone or introducing two people to each other, make sure you do so in the correct manner. The tips below will help you understand basic guidelines so you’ll feel more confident and appear professional.

  • Always be ready to introduce yourself. Don’t stand next to someone waiting to be introduced. Instead, extend your hand and state your name. For example: "Hello, I’m Juliana Pericci." The other person should return your greeting and introduce herself.
    If she doesn’t, ask her, "And your name is….?"
  • Follow the proper pecking order. The person of honor is mentioned first; the other person is introduced to her or him. The person of honor is the higher-ranking person. If, for instance, a new graduate is being introduced to the vice president (VP) of nursing, the VP is mentioned first and the new nurse is presented or introduced to the VP.
  • Always stand when making an introduction or being introduced. If you are seated when someone approaches to greet you, make the effort to stand. This demonstrates respect.
  • Make eye contact during the introduction. Don’t underestimate the importance of this nonverbal gesture. When you make eye contact, you project confidence.
  • Smile. This shows your interest in the other person.
  • Shake hands. Use your right hand for a firm, full handshake. Avoid fingertip handshakes. Keep your right hand clean and free so you’re ready to meet someone and shake hands.
  • Repeat the other person’s name. This will help you remember it.

Dress professionally

Like a soup can, we’re judged by our overall packaging. The more put together your appearance, the more positive the impression you make. If you’re underdressed, you could embarrass yourself and your colleagues. Wearing sloppy or inappropriate attire could imply you don’t place value on appearance or don’t care if your appearance affects your employer’s image. If you’re overdressed, on the other hand, you might set the wrong tone and intimidate others.

How do you determine the proper attire? Look at people in the positions you’re aiming for, and dress for the role you aspire to. A nurse educator, for example, may have a different professional look than a nursing VP. If you’re looking to advance your career, model your attire after those in the next level up.


If you carry a handbag or briefcase, know that these items do more than hold papers, wallets, and cell phones. They offer clues to your professionalism, success, and personality. Don’t let a shabby purse or briefcase detract from your overall appearance.

Positive first impressions, proper introductions, and professional dress are vital to both your daily success and long-term achievement. Everything you say (or don’t say) and everything you do (or don’t do) can influence your professional image. So when it comes to your appearance, do sweat the small stuff. You’ll gain a competitive edge.

Selected references

Pagana K. The Nurse’s Communication Advantage: How Business-Savvy Communication Can Advance Your Nursing Career. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society; 2011.

Pagana K. The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage: How Professional Etiquette Can Advance Your Nursing Career. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society; 2008.

Pagana K. 7 tips to improve your professional etiquette. Nurs Manage. 2010 Jan;41(1):45-8.

Sih M. A good impression can take seconds to make, last years. Kansas City Business Journal. May 31, 1998. www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/stories/1998/06/01/smallb2.html?page=all. Accessed May 18, 2010.

A keynote speaker, Kathleen D. Pagana is a professor emeritus at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and president of Pagana Keynotes and Presentations. She is the author of The Nurse’s Communication Advantage and The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage. To contact her, visit www.KathleenPagana.com.

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