In a groundbreaking study of 5,000 successful employees and managers over a five-year period, UC Berkeley management professor Morten T. Hansen found that top performers have an extraordinary ability to persuade other people to buy in to their ideas.
In his new book Great at Work, Hansen identifies skills, attributes, and habits that separate top performers from the majority of professionals in the workplace. Hansen discovered that those leaders who rise to the top of an organization are skilled at persuasion.
"Think about today's modern workplace. It's no longer a hierarchy where you can command someone to do something and they do it. It requires that we work across departments, geographies, and companies," Hansen told me. "You need to work with people over whom you have no formal authority. You need to be able to communicate with them, persuade them, and excite them."
Hansen's research has identified three ways top performers convince people to buy in to their ideas.
1. Make them upset--and excited.
Inspiring others requires touching people on an emotional level. One way to create such a connection is to create both negative and positive emotions--in that order. Give your audience something to be mad about in the present (a frustration they share, a fear they have) followed by a sense of relief and joy that your product, idea, or service will resolve the problem.
Hansen's observation is consistent with my research into the communication skills of Steve Jobs. In 2007, Jobs introduced the iPhone. Before he unveiled the product itself, he built up the tension by focusing on the frustration consumers were having at the time with the smartphones on the market. Once the audience was sufficiently upset at the present, Jobs unveiled the hero, the product that would make their life more joyful.
2. Show it (don't just tell it).
Top performers use photos, props, artifacts, videos, and demonstrations to dramatize their arguments and stir up emotions, says Hansen. He's right. I've rarely seen a mesmerizing presenter who sticks to slides alone.
For example, you might have heard of one of the most memorable TED Talks of all time--the day Bill Gates released the mosquitoes. In 2009, Gates was talking about his foundation's health care efforts to stop the spread of malaria. "Malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitoes. I brought some here, just so you could experience this," Gates said as he opened a jar of mosquitoes to let roam around the auditorium.
Before everyone panicked, Gates reassured the audience that the insects were not infected. The prop was a hit and even made the national news that evening. The audience loved it so much that Gates started bringing props to more presentations and interviews, although he leaves the mosquitoes behind.
3. Make them feel purpose.
In Hansen's research, he found that inspiring leaders infuse their words with purpose. Most people want to feel a sense of purpose about their work. Hansen says leaders who connect their employees' daily tasks to a grander purpose stand apart from average leaders.
This communication technique reminds me of a meeting I once had with then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. In our two-hour discussion, I was the first person to bring up the word coffee. Schultz responded, "Coffee is what we sell as a product, but it's not the business we're in."
Schultz saw his company as having a higher purpose. In his mind, Starbucks stood for community, the famous "third place between work and home."
Working "smarter" doesn't necessarily mean working longer hours. It means working better. Improving your communication skills might be the smartest thing you can ever do.