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Leadership

His royal shyness and how to cultivate charisma

Published 23 June 2022 in Leadership • 7 min read

Zoe Chance discusses how Prince learnt to become a great communicator, the power of saying no, and honing the superpower that makes good things happen. Interview by David Bach

Influence is the superpower for getting everything you want, without compromising who you are. Almost every single thing that we hope to do in life requires the willing participation of other human beings. And there is a science to encouraging other people to say yes — which will also reduce your own anxiety about being rejected. These skills can also help to change the world, for the better.

In her book, Influence is Your Superpower, Zoe Chance, the professor behind Yale School of Management’s most popular class, outlines an ethical approach to influence that can help you to cultivate charisma, negotiate more effectively, and distinguish between influencers and manipulators.

Zoe Chance Dr. Zoe Chance is a writer, teacher, researcher, and climate philanthropist obsessed with the topic of interpersonal influence.

Thinking, fast and slow

Chance, a writer, teacher, researcher and climate philanthropist, believes the key to boosting our powers of persuasion is understanding behavioral economics (or nudge theory), the lovechild of psychology and economics that helps to explain how people make decisions in the real world. The vast majority of decision making is controlled by one of two systems of thinking, as described in the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“System 1” thinking happens automatically and intuitively, with little effort. It’s driven by instinct and past experience. For instance, we know automatically how to tie our shoelaces. And when driving, we will instinctively swerve to avoid crashing into a pedestrian.

“System 2” thinking is slower, rational, deliberate and requires more effort. It kicks in when we need to solve a complex problem, such as picking out a friend in a crowd. Chance compares System 2 thinking to a judge. “Our conscious attention can only focus on one case at a time, carefully weighing evidence, the pros and cons,” she said.

System 2 likes to think it is in charge, but really it’s System 1 that runs the show. “The unconscious mind is far more influential,” she said. It is “like an alligator lurking below the surface of your conscious awareness, scanning the environment all the time for opportunities and threats”.

So even when we think we are making decisions based on rational considerations, System 1 is actually driving most of our choices. When trying to influence people, most of us will forget this and try to convince them with logical arguments, such as the benefits of our products and services. However, the decision they make will not be based on facts and figures. It will be driven by intuition.

System 1 is “very quick to make snap judgments”, said Chance. This is out of necessity. There is simply too much going on in the world. System 1 filters out the noise and focuses on the most significant stimuli, ignoring much of the rest. “It’s the gatekeeper to the judge,” she said.

To exert influence, you need to rise above the noise to make yourself heard. “We need to spark people’s curiosity before we start to give them all the data and the facts,” she said. So you must first grab someone’s attention before you can start appealing to their conscious, rational mind with your sales pitch. “The information isn’t impactful until the person is already interested.”

The power issue

From CXOs to Gen Z activists, our experts examine where the real sway lies. In Issue VII of I by IMD, we explore the shifting centers of command and how leaders can inspire, empower and wield influence for good.

Influence as a force for good

Chance helps people use the superpower of influence as a force for good. Even if they don’t think they have much power, she says they can make a big difference in the world. “I believe influence can help move the needle towards climate solutions, improving public health and eliminating, eventually, gun violence and figuring out solutions to wars and help for people who are suffering in them,” she said.

While leaders can exert influence on an individual level, they can also scale it up. “The real power that we have to end these massive, global challenges that we have is our collective action. And the skill that we need for organizing is interpersonal influence,” she said. For instance, she is donating half the profits from her book towards climate change.

Readers have leveraged her techniques to make a difference in their communities and organizations. This includes influencing companies to create an internship program for under-represented minorities to boost workforce diversity, and offering staff egg freezing, an expensive treatment that enables women to take control of their fertility.

Influence may be a superpower, but leaders must use it responsibly, which Chance calls the “Spider-Man doctrine”.

“Influence may be a superpower, but leaders must use it responsibly, which Chance calls the “Spider-Man doctrine”.”

The power of turning people down

Chance’s book is based on her Yale class. One of the key takeaways is the power of saying “no” more often, such as for 24 hours in a row. Not only will it make you less overwhelmed; it will make you more influential. That’s because learning to turn people down can make us less bothered about having our own requests declined.

She explained: “When you become more comfortable with the idea of them saying no, then when you are asking, you don’t have so much pressure, you don’t have that kind of neediness that is repulsive. So when you’re taking the pressure off, ironically, they become more inclined to say yes. This chain of events starts with you saying no, and it ends with other people saying yes.”

Saying no is hard. “Many of us are afraid that the other person is going to think that we don’t like them, or they’re going to feel bad, or they’re going to think that we’re unkind, greedy, bratty, or whatever.” In reality, these fears are overdone. “What you will realize when you say no is that no one will die, and no one will want to kill you.” And you can practice saying no warmly. “Keep it simple. Don’t make lots of excuses: ‘no thank you’ is a complete sentence.”

Inclusion
“Keep it simple. Don't make lots of excuses: ‘no thank you’ is a complete sentence.”
- Zoe Chance

Stage fright

Winning friends and influencing people takes some determination. Even those who seem naturally charismatic will have spent time on it. As an example, Chance sites the musician Prince. Early in his career, Prince was an excellent musician, but he lacked charisma. He got a lucky break when punk-funk inventor Rick James invited Prince to open his 1980 tour. It went badly; Prince hardly moved and was booed off stage.

He didn’t give up. Prince went away and worked on his performance. He adopted techniques such as making eye contact with the audience. And, by the end of the tour, he went from being booed off stage to receiving standing ovations. He even made some women faint. “I’m not promising that you will knock people out with your charisma,” Chance says, but through simple techniques and small changes to behavior we can all channel a bit of Prince.

Most of us, even those at the top, struggle with anxiety over public speaking, whether that’s in a team meeting or a conference. One of the biggest mistakes people make is speaking to the group. In trying to look at everyone at once, we can end up connecting with no one.

The best way to captivate the room is to speak to people as individuals. You can reduce stage fright by sustaining eye contact with just one person at a time, which feels less nerve-wracking. It will also make each person feel like they are the only one in the room. “When you connect with people one by one, other people feel it. There’s a vicarious electric connection,” said Chance.

She says leaders must also practice inclusion when speaking publicly and make conscious choices about with whom they interact. “There will be a small number of people in that group who you or the other speakers are focusing on,” she said. “Maybe it’s who has power, maybe it’s who they like or find attractive. And once you start noticing the inequity of the distribution of attention, you can start to be more equitable with yours, and be more intentional about who you’re talking to by including more people.”

In a discussion, it’s often the case that one individual dominates the conversation and no one else can get a word in edgeways. To avoid being overshadowed, Chance recommends making a comment early on in the meeting, or even before it starts. “You don’t have to say something smart, it could be general chit chat. You just have to register your presence by speaking. And then what you notice is that other people perceive you as part of the group and they’re actually including you in the conversation.” You’ll also feel like a participant, not an observer, which will make it easier for you to speak up later in the discussion.

Authors

David Bach

David Bach

Professor of Strategy and Political Economy

An expert in strategy and political economy, David Bach holds the Rio Tinto Chair in Stakeholder Engagement at IMD. Through his award-winning teaching and writing, Bach helps managers and senior executives develop a strategic lens for the nexus of business and politics.

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