I once asked the head of a top ad agency what makes a good ad. "No idea," he said. "I have creatives for that! My job is to manage the prima donnas."
He was being sarcastic, of course, and downplaying his own expertise, but I could tell he had a lot of confidence in his team leaders' creativity. And it wasn't because they educated him on the finer points of great advertising. It was because they'd influenced him—to believe that they knew what makes a good ad.
It's a crucial difference but one that many of us miss. In order to get your leaders to have confidence in your ideas and your career potential, you need to persuade them. Sharing information—informing your supervisors—is part of that process, but it isn't the process itself. No matter how much you want them to understand the depth of your work, your knowledge, and your expertise, your leaders are not studying for a test. By shifting your focus from educating to influencing, you can build the credibility you need to get where you're trying to go.
When you try to educate somebody about a particular subject, you implicitly assume that you have the power. You're the one with ideas, knowledge, and information—that's why you're imparting it, after all. Everyone else is just hoping to soak in as much as they can.
And indeed, being able to explain things coherently to different audiences is a key leadership skill. But the art of persuasion demands relinquishing some of the power that educating people requires us to hang onto. When you focus on influencing others, you make them feel like they’re the ones with the power. You focus your ideas at the right level for your audience, in terms that are straightforward.
You want your listeners to see how smart they already are. Instead of explaining the numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. When your audience feels smart and capable, they’ll view you as smart and capable for having made the meaning and impact so clear.
We recently helped a CFO make this shift in the group-speaking program my company runs. She started out by simply pointing out financial numbers that her listeners could find on the sheets on front of them: "We started the year at $76.6 million. Right now, at July 31st, we’re at $77.2 million." But with a little work, she was able to discuss these figures in in a way that drove home their impact to her audience: "By staying on plan with expenses the rest of the year, we will be within budget for 2015." With this simple yet subtle shift, she moved from educating to influencing.
When you try to educate your audience, you’re asking them to trust your information. You hope that if they understand your data and the thrust of your argument, you'll bring them around to your conclusion, and they'll agree with you. So you build slide deck after slide deck, inviting your audience to delve into the details so that they have everything they'll need to grasp your analysis in detail. You believe that the more they understand, the greater they’ll trust your conclusions.
But by focusing on influencing your audience, you ask them to trust you, not your information. You want them to believe that you’re thoughtful, thorough, and have sound judgment. If they have confidence in you, they'll have confidence in your conclusions and the data you're using to back them up.
When you're deciding whether to eat at a certain restaurant, for instance, you could seek out a detailed ingredients list, portion size information, and nutrition facts—or you could just ask a friend with good taste. Data is important, but if you want to influence people, you need to demonstrate your own conviction through your delivery—your energy, tone, and pacing.
If you’re informing your audience, you establish the context, background, and process—then you give your audience the conclusion. Demonstrating that you follow the scientific method is a great skill to have in school, but it’s not so great for influencing people.
To shift toward influencing, give the conclusion first. You can provide further background and details as you get into the meat of your presentation, but you need to deliver the key message right away if you want to maximize your influence.
For example, if you’re warning someone about black ice on Minnesota roads in January, you could explain the meteorological conditions that lead to the dangerously transparent ice—or you could just say, "Drive slowly if it snows when it’s below zero!" Impart the most relevant information immediately, and only then back it up with reasons why. You'll sound more credible—and be more influential—when you do.
Or think of it this way: Information isn't hard to come by, so you need to bring more to the table than that. Concentrate on influencing for action instead. Instead of showing people the facts, explain what needs to be done about them.