The years New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova spent interviewing con artists for her book The Confidence Game didn't make her like these expert hustlers any more, but it did make her respect their skills.
"We shouldn't forget that these are bad people who ruin lives," Konnikova told the Guardian. "But of course you have a grudging admiration for them because they're really, really good at what they do. The name 'con artist' really does capture it. They're artists, and I have admiration for all artists."
As much as we may loathe the behavior of the expert flimflam man, we also have to admire his grasp of human psychology and skills of persuasion -- skills it's possible to use for far more admirable ends, according to author Alexa Clay.
In a recent Unreasonable Institute post, she argues that "such tricksters actually have quite a bit to teach entrepreneurs today about hustle, salesmanship, and the art of a pitch" before laying out five specific skills that legitimate businesspeople could helpfully lift from con artists. Here they are in brief:
1. Understand how people really make decisions.
Cons only work when you focus on the other party's emotional needs. The same could be said of legitimate entrepreneurial pitches, insists Clay.
2. Hook people with collateral.
Tangible objects and real-world actions cement a target's investment in an idea way more than lofty speeches and PowerPoint slides. That's why con men reel in their victims with forged documents and expensive props. Entrepreneurs should borrow a bit of this wisdom and understand that "a prototype is worth one thousand words. An experience is far more meaningful than an elevator pitch," Clay contends.
3. Free ride on others' legitimacy.
Clay tells the story of a fraudster who paid down-on-their-luck celebrities to pitch his scams. This con artist understood a truth entrepreneurs would do well to learn -- piggybacking on other people's good reputation to take you very far indeed.
"When pitching, signal connections to things that people already know and have a built-in imagination around. It's no wonder that many startups lean on a tried formula of 'Zipcar for puppies' or 'Grinder for fights' (fictitious examples). Creating a link between established enterprise and something new gives others a metaphorical bridge into your idea," advises Clay. Also, cash in on the social capital of your mentors, parties, organizations, or even university, to get a borrowed legitimacy bump.
4. Manage your reputation
Clay offers another great story of a con man who successfully sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal to illustrate this example (this tale, along with the other tales of successful cons Clay relates, is well worth a read in full) but beyond these colorful details, the basic takeaway for legitimate business people is powerful: "half the art of pitching is managing your own reputation and understanding how people perceive you... Take stock of how others see you and then work to dislodge any negative assumptions they might be carrying."
5. Create an alter ego.
Con artists take this approach to extremes, but putting on a metaphorical mask (to a lesser extent) is a great technique for any entrepreneur beset by a lack of confidence.
"Step into a character or persona that allows you to stand strong in joy, humor, confidence, leadership, and vision. It's not about cultivating a fake identity, but tapping into the strength of a personality that might reside dormant within you. Create a character sketch of who you want to be when you pitch. Give that character attributes -- a secret name even - and wear an outfit that makes you feel connected to that character. Con men and performers do this all the time," instructs Clay.