Learn how to influence people

“When you listen to someone, 
you should give up all your preconceived ideas 
and subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, 
just observe what his way is.”

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

If you’ve read the previous chapters, you’re now well past the basics. You’re a trustworthy person, a problem solver, you don’t create any problems for your sponsor, and you know how to make the big decisions. Now we’ll dig into a few of the finer points of being a consultant.

At this point, perhaps the most important thing you can learn is how to influence people.

Influencing people

In a perfect world, your work as a consultant goes something like this:

  • You’re hired to solve a problem
  • You investigate the problem, and come up with a solution
  • You share the solution with the client (you “sell” the solution)
  • You implement the solution
  • The client is happy

If you were a doctor, the first three steps of this process would be described this way:

  • A patient comes in with a problem
  • You diagnose the problem
  • You prescribe a cure for the problem, i.e., some “medicine”

Unfortunately every once in a while you’ll run into a problem in Step 3 of this process where your client will refuse to take the medicine. You can run into this problem for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The client doesn’t understand you
  • You didn’t fully understand the problem
  • The client doesn’t trust you
  • You’re not a convincing presenter
  • All other reasons

I tend to be a confident person when I’m prescribing the cure in Step 3, and I also tend to fully explain the cure when I propose it, so I don’t run into the “client refuses to take the medicine” problem very often, but it still does happen. When it happens to me, my problems are almost always #1 and #2: Either I didn’t explain my solution well (most common for me), or for one reason or another I didn’t fully understand the problem. I haven’t run into #3 in a long time, and #5 is a beast all of its own that gets into things like office politics, turf wars, technology wars, etc. What I’d like to focus on in this chapter is #4, “You’re not a convincing presenter.”

Um, er ...

One of the smartest technical people I’ve ever known was a horrible presenter. Even though he was almost always right on technical matters, people rarely accepted his ideas when he made his presentations. If I presented his suggestions it was usually a done deal, but if he presented them, it was always a battle to get the work approved.

The only differences I’m aware of in our presentation styles are:

  • I rehearsed my presentations. I made sure I led the client from (a) where we were, to (b) where we wanted to be.
  • Whatever the subject matter, I knew how I wanted the presentation to end. (In general, I wanted my ideas to be approved.)
  • Because I rehearsed my presentation, and knew what I thought was best, I was confident.
  • Because I practiced, I didn’t use filler words like “um,” “er,” and so on. (I beat myself up when I rehearse and use words like this.)
  • My presentations took less than half the time of his.

Every difference in our presentations goes back to the fact that I rehearse what I’m going to say, and as a result, I’m confident when I say it.

Learning to speak well

Learning how to speak well and with confidence is an incredibly important trait for a consultant. By simply planning what you want from a meeting, rehearsing the subject matter until you know it cold, and then speaking it as planned, you will succeed.

The only way to get better with any form of public speaking is to practice, practice, practice. The good news is that over time this gets much easier.

My “flop sweat” experience

If it helps to know it, while I feel very comfortable speaking these days, I had the dreaded “flop sweat” experience with one of my earliest presentations. I was twenty-four years old, working in the aerospace industry, and working for a small business, and the owner of that small business hated giving presentations. As a result, although I knew nothing about a particular subject, he forced me to go to California with him and give a presentation to the Board of Directors of a multi-billion dollar aerospace corporation.

It was the most humbling experience of my life. While I tried to prepare, I just couldn’t learn the material fast enough, and my presentation was a humiliating flop. During the presentation the perspiration started, and it just wouldn’t stop. I wished people would quit looking at me, but they wouldn’t. I kept turning to look at the wall where my slides were projected just so I could wipe the sweat off my face. By the time I was done, my shirt was soaked, and I was humiliated.

I try not to blame other people for my problems, but in this situation — because of his own fear of public speaking — my boss put me in a position to fail that day, and I certainly did. For a time I considered doing something else for a living, until I realized that I had been set up for failure by someone else.

A later success

I almost immediately quit that company, and just eighteen months later a second supervisor put me in a situation I could win. I was working on a project for a NASA subcontractor, and once a year we had to give formal presentations of what we were working on to the primary contractor, NASA officials, and other government officials.

Despite my earlier flop sweat experience, I was still very ambitious, and I wanted to make more money than a NASA subcontractor could pay me. My supervisor knew this, so he asked me to help him out and give a presentation on a very controversial topic before I left. I agreed, but I confided with him about my earlier disaster, and told him I didn’t know if I was up to the task. To get ready for the big test, he helped me prepare my presentation, made sure I knew all the subject matter, and made me rehearse in front of my peers before giving the presentation to the people at NASA.

At the beginning of both the rehearsal presentation and the actual presentation, my heart was pounding and my throat was dry, but I didn’t sweat. After a few minutes and a few deep breaths, I was able to calm down, and I was eventually able to use my nervousness to make a more energetic and forceful presentation. As I gave the real presentation, I realized I really did know the subject matter, and I knew what I wanted to say. Not only could I talk confidently about the current slide, I was able to think ahead and make a smooth transition to the next slide.

In short, my presentation was a success. After the presentation, people I didn’t know came up to shake my hand. My boss had a big smile on his face. A few friends at the company congratulated me, saying I had opened some minds on a very controversial topic. With this success, I knew I was ready to begin my career as a consultant. While that presentation was a resounding success, what might really amaze you is that within a year I was giving presentations to more than 150 people at a time — and I was anxious to increase that number to five hundred or more people! Less than three years after my embarrassing flop sweat disaster, I was ready to speak in front of anyone who would listen.

Lessons from an automotive service rep

As I write this chapter, I’m sitting in a Toyota dealership, having some service work done on my car. One service department representative here is an outstanding communicator, really terrific at influencing customers. He speaks in a direct, matter of fact manner, and is confident in what he says. When speaking to some people sitting next to me, he approached them like this:

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith, we haven’t been able to find anything wrong with the tires or suspension system, so I recommend that we rotate and balance the tires to see if that eliminates the vibration problem you’re feeling. If you have the time, we can do this in less than thirty minutes, and it will cost $X. Would you like to proceed with this plan?”

Notice that there isn’t anything magical or poetic in his words, he just spoke in a very clear manner, stating that they can’t find a cause for the problem (what we’d call a “bug report” in the computer industry), but despite that, he suggested a possible plan of attack to resolve the complaint.

As an employer, I appreciate what he did. Not only did he offer a problem, he also offered a potential solution. A lesser employee might have only said something like, “We can’t find the problem. What would you like to do?”, or perhaps, “We can’t find the problem. Why don’t you take the car back and see if it gets worse or becomes repeatable?”

I say this all the time, but a good employee never presents a problem without a possible solution. People who know me have heard the phrase, “You get ten points for finding the problem, and ninety points for solving it.” That’s what I really appreciate about this service representative. He acted as a consultant with these people, saying, “We don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but if you want to try to solve this problem today, it’s our professional opinion that this is the next, best step to take.”

Getting people to take action

In the classic book, “The Secrets of Consulting,” Gerald Weinberg offers a great quote and story about influencing people. Here’s the quote:

“You can make buffalo go anywhere you want, just as long as they want to go there.”

According to his story, buffalo will run right through a barbed wire fence, so the only way you can “control” them is by making your desired destination more attractive to them than the alternative. This is similar to a much earlier quote from Dale Carnegie:

“There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”

In his excellent book, “How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling,” Frank Bettger shares that quote, along with this one:

“The most important secret of salesmanship is to find out what the other fellow wants, then help him find the best way to get it.”

As I’ve mentioned, what most clients want is for a problem to go away — they want a solution to their problem — so if you’ve worked diligently and you’re convinced that you have the best solution, selling it should be easy: Just tell them why it’s the best approach.

books i’ve written