What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
My daughter is studying media and we had a chat today about communication principles, particularly about working with large groups, e.g. presenting at meetings or conferences. On the face of it, I explained, it’s as simple as ABC: (a) having clear intention, (b) knowing your audience and (c) using effective media.
Having clear intention
What do you want your audience to leave thinking? Do you want them to have fresh information, knowledge, questions, understanding? If so, what is the focus? If you were to meet with each person present one week later, what are the three key things you hope they would remember from this meeting?
What do you want your audience to leave feeling? Do you want them to feel encouraged, inspired, confident, challenged? What do you want your audience to do as a result of this encounter? Do you have specific actions in mind? If so, is the audience clear what you want them to do – what, how and when?
Knowing your audience
This is tricky in large meetings, especially if open meetings. It’s about finding out as much as you can beforehand. Why are these people here? What are their core interests? What kind of language, metaphors and concepts do they tend to use? What would make this meeting worthwhile from their point of view?
It’s worth assuming a mix of theorists (who will want to know that what you’re saying is well founded), reflectors (who will want space and time to think it through), pragmatists (who will want to know there is some practical purpose to it) and activists (who will want to get on and do something).
Also a mix of thinkers (like to know the rationale), feelers (want to feel an emotional connection), big picture people (like to know overall vision and concepts), data people (want to know the key details), organised people (like structure) and emergent people (enjoy fluidity).
Using effective media
The choice of media falls out of intention and audience and what kind of facilities and equipment are available. Some people have a visual preference (engage with what they see) some auditory (engage with what they hear) and some kinaesthetic (engage by doing something practical).
Using a range of media, therefore, that involve seeing, hearing and doing can be most engaging for a large mixed group. This often demands creative thought and planning beforehand. ‘What could be the most creative and engaging way to do this?’ ‘How can we best use a diverse mix of media in the same meeting?’
It’s worth thinking about who to involve too. It would be one thing for a team to present on its own work, what it does. It would be another thing for a different team to present on what that team’s efforts have enabled them to do. It can help to involve a range of people, to hear different, unexpected voices.
Intention, audience and media are important. I’ve learned over time, however, that authenticity and trust are equally, if not more, important. Covey comments, ‘When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective’. When trust is low, even the most simple communications can feel strained.
I often encourage speakers to consider beforehand, ‘As you look out on this sea of faces, what do you really believe? Do you genuinely love these people? Do you believe they are worthy of trust and respect? Is what you want to communicate real and true? Are you really open to listen and invite challenge?’
These are the more subtle aspects of communication, the character and values dimensions that can easily be missed, lost or ignored whilst focusing on technical messages, methods and techniques. It's passionate conviction, quiet humility and determined integrity that often make the difference.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.