What defines a leader? You have as many definitions as there are people. I would argue that one of the best ways to define a leader is “someone who can influence others to unite for a common goal and get it done”. To be able to influence others you don’t need to be formally in charge. In fact, leaders often emerge through the ranks of employees naturally and are getting more their power formalized only after they showed their leadership abilities.
Some time ago I wrote a set of articles about influence: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, and Lesson 3. I talked about how you can exert influence with people around you and how you can push change that is needed to move your team in a direction that the business requires by working directly with them, through other people and by shaping the physical environment. Today I would like to introduce couple of principles outlined by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. They present a framework, a set of principles, that when used can greatly enhance your message and help you influence others and change the environment around you. These principles deal only with the message in forms of stories you tell to influence others and extend what I wrote in Lesson 1. The six principles are:
You might have heard about the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Originally used in the US Navy the principle states that most systems work best when we keep them as simple as possible (less things to break and easier to fix), so the goal of any design should be removing unnecessary complexity and keeping things as simple as possible.
The same applies to communication. If you want your message to be understood and remembered (leaving impact) you need to work on making it as simple as possible. When you communicate an idea focus on few critical aspects and leave out all the other points that are not critical to your message.
Let’s say you want to explain a difference between a whale and a cat. They are both animals, mammals, one is bigger than the other, one has fur the other doesn’t, one eats mostly plankton, the other eats bunch of stuff including meat, one is being kept as a pet, the other roams free, and so on. But how would you design a message that would be easy to remember? What about, a whale weights 150 tons and lives in the ocean while a five kilograms cat lives in your bedroom.
It is about finding the “core” message and making it really “compact”. Proverbs work like that. You get a key wisdom compressed into a short soundbite that is easy to remember. Just look at these examples:
- “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Trying to convince people with words and ideas is often more effective than forcing them to do what you want.)
- “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” (Very useful advice when you travel or even join a new company with different culture. Observe and learn from others around you to adapt and fit in.)
- “Easy come, easy go.” (Usually related to money. When you get something without expending much effort you don’t value it and you often lose it quickly.)
The core message, in the army called the Commander’s intent summarizes the goal you are trying to achieve. “Commander’s intent (CSI) plays a central role in military decision making and planning. CSI acts as a basis for staffs and subordinates to develop their own plans and orders to transform thought into action, while maintaining the overall intention of their commander. The commander’s intent links the mission and concept of operations. It describes the end state and key tasks that, along with the mission, are the basis for subordinates’ initiative.”
“We will take the enemy’s position 182 by noon tomorrow”. It is clear and concise enough that it cannot be miscommunicated or misunderstood and can provide enough guidance even for units (teams) that become suddenly cut from their chain of command (management).
It is not just simplicity that will help you to get the message across to your audience and influence the right outcome. Before you can even attempt this you need to get attention of the people you want to influence. How do you do it? By violating people’s expectations. By doing or saying something unexpected or even counterintuitive. Humans are curious by nature so making people curious about where you are heading with your message is a powerful tool. Just think about why so many people love detective stories and will stick with the book or movie to the very end to learn who’s done it.
Within the professional circles a great way to pick up an interest and make people curious is to highlight the knowledge gap. Start with something that people have general understanding of and interest in and make it clear that they don’t know the whole story and there is some interesting fact coming up. “You all know that we had a good year but you would be surprised on how much we actually grew. Before I get to the numbers let me remind you some of the key successes that got us here.” Now, if you are at least little big curious human being you will listen with interest and to wait till the end to learn the actual numbers.
Abstract ideas are really difficult to get across and to be remembered. If you want your message to stick you need to make it as concrete as possible. Let’s look again at proverbs. Just compare these two statements both describing the same concept. First being very literary but too abstract “People from different cultures, different educational background, different positions and wealth may have different priorities and ideas about what is valuable and what not.” The other being a proverb making the abstract idea very tangible and concrete “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Which one will you remember?
Curiously enough talking about numbers may not make the message concrete enough but, in fact, the opposite. “We have spent one thousand dollars on snacks for the office this year.” What does it tell you? Yes, you know it was thousand dollars but what exactly does it mean? Compare it to “The team consumed a thousand chocolate bars this year. That is a hundred for each of you.” In this case the dollar value even though correct and precise is less tangible than the actual number of chocolate bars in your hand.
People won’t believe a message unless they feel it comes from a credible source and sounds sort of credible. Let’s say that two people come to you and make this announcement “orange juice is really bad to your health”. One would be a medical doctor in white while the other is an accountant from your company. Who would you believe more readily? You would of course make bunch of assumptions about the guy in white. He is a doctor, studied for it, practices the craft, follows the latest research, and knows what he is talking about. You would follow his advice rather than the pale guy from finance department. You would again make an assumption. What does an accountant know about health and oranges?
There is the same danger as in previous principle. Most of us see hard numbers as a proof that you know what you are talking about, that you did your research and have your facts straight. However, there is still the danger of losing the message in numbers that are too abstract for others to follow or remember.
You might think that emotions have no place in business but you couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to leadership. You just need to use emotions strategically. How do you ensure others care about you and your idea? Well, caring means feeling something. Why do you think so many politicians start hugging children before an election day? They are trying to show that they care. But how do you show that you care about a nation? That is a too abstract concept, rather you hug a single child which will symbolize that you care about everyone. For people it is easier to feel something when it gets very specific, a single cute child, rather than a nation.
This tactics works very well in many charitable endeavors. Hearing about thousands dead in some conflict or natural disaster is too difficult to grasp and it doesn’t have the same emotional impact (it is just a statistics) as a picture of a single child crying over his dead mother. This will immediately trigger emotions since you can picture yourself in the same position and it will immediately move you into an action. Something must be done!
There are also many other ways how to involve emotions in pushing your message. In the professional world there are couple of tactics that often work. You can appeal to self-interest of your audience or even better to their identity. Let’s say you talk with your management team and you need to eliminate a habit of people changing their minds all the time that is spreading through the company and makes it an environment full of uncertainty. The message you may want to go with would be along the lines “great managers stand by their decisions”. The emotion you would play at is the fact that all your managers believe that they are great managers and would feel offended that someone would think otherwise. Because of that emotion they would start paying more attention to this behavior and get better at it.
The best way to get people not only hear the message but to act on it is a combination of invoking emotion while telling a compelling story. Hearing a story helps people visualize the action and the ultimate outcome. This then leads to reducing worry that they don’t know what to do or that things may not go as planned. This type of story will help people to understand how to act. Imagine you are in a technical support department. Every customer who call will have a slightly different problem, will explain it in a different way, will have a different environment or the way to use your product. But the underlying technology is the same and these problems often have lots in common. By regularly talking with your fellow support engineers and exchanging stories about what problem customers had and how you solved it will help the whole group to learn from each other in a way that is very natural. You can influence the quality of work your colleagues and you provide just by telling stories.
The other type of story you may employ is a story to energize the team, to explain why to act. For a story to be truly inspiring it should be somehow relevant and relatable to the audience. This is often used in mentoring discussions when more experienced mentor tells a story about how he dealt with a difficult situation and succeeded to inspire his mentee to get the courage and deal with the problem at hand. Real leaders would also use the inspiring stories to rally the forces to march towards the same vision. They will create in your head a picture of the outcome that makes you excited to follow them.
So how does it all come together?
Regardless of your formal position you can have a huge impact if you learn to communicate the way that will touch both the hearts and minds of those you want to convince. You can use this framework during one on one conversations, in your writing or in big public presentations. The key is to understand who your audience is and to tweak the message accordingly. You also need to realize that it is not just the message but also the messenger who counts. Even the best message delivered by a leader who has no credibility, who regularly misleads his followers, or who is known to say one thing and do the other will not have the desired effect.
What are your thoughts on how to influence others? What do you do when asked to present an important proposal to get approval, push through some idea, or when marshalling your team to perform a task they are not too keen on?
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