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Convinced: The Art of Impression Management

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Last week I read an excellent new book called Conv!nced: How to Prove your Competence & Win People Over

The book is about impression management and how to become your own PR agent. It explains why it’s not enough to be competent, you must also be perceived as competent if you want to get ahead and thrive.

I liked the book so much (it’s well written and has lots of great tips) that I reached out to the author Jack Nasher late last week for an interview and in this article we’re going to talk about some of the key lessons from the book.

In this article:

Let’s begin:

How to do you know if someone is good or not?

Michael Frank: Why did you write the book Conv!nced? What’s it about?

Jack Nasher: You know when you see politicians or CEO’s, people either like ’em or don’t like ’em, but as a matter of fact, nobody really knows much about what they’re actually doing. You see them sometimes on TV, but are they really any good? Are they doing a good job? I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually know what they’re doing in their everyday life. The decisions they make, I have no idea. All I see is just see one or two decisions in the news that I either agree with or don’t agree with, but the truth is that it’s really hard to judge the competence or expertise of somebody as an outsider, and so when I was a student at Oxford I thought well, how do I really know if somebody is good or not?

People say: “My dentist is great!” Really? How do you know? Do you know anything about dentistry? And yet you say they’re great. If you say they’re good, what do you look for? What’s the criteria that makes you think you have the best dentist in the world? Or the best lawyer? Or the best car mechanic? What is the criteria that people use to make their judgments?

Actual competence vs perceived competence

Michael Frank: One of the key themes of the book is the difference between competence and perceived competence 

Jack Nasher: Yeah. It’s unbelievable how much of a difference there is between actual competence and perceived competence. They actually almost have nothing to do with each other. It’s just a fact that you can be terrible at what you do, and yet people will think you are fantastic. And the question is: How? Why? What do you do so that people stand there in awe and think, oh my God, what a fantastic guy or girl?

It’s worth finding out because people are convinced by whoever they think is the most competent in the group, and they’re willing to pay top dollar for somebody they consider to be extremely competent. And that’s the point, if people perceive you as being very competent, if they think you’re the best in your field, you don’t have to give discounts, you don’t have to be part of the rat race. It just saves you a lot of money, time, and effort, because people will just come to you.

Impression management & becoming your own PR agent

Michael Frank: You talk about impression management and becoming your own PR agent, and you say that you control and influence ninety percent of how others see and perceive you. That it’s within your control.

Jack Nasher: Yes exactly. And you should seize that chance to make a good impression. You cannot, not, communicate. Every meeting, every interaction, every time you walk down the aisle, you make an impression whether you like it or not. That’s just the way it is. Don’t wait until you’re sitting down with your boss for a salary negotiation to make a good impression. It’s too late then. You should do it every day you go to the office. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to act or change your personality. It doesn’t mean you have to play a part. No not at all. Do your job. But you also have to know how to sell your success, and you have to know how to deal with mistakes, because some people when they make a mistake, the whole company knows about it and it’s terrible, and other people seem to get away with it.

Why? What do they do differently? I’m sure you’ve had colleagues who don’t do a very good job, but once they have a small success, everyone knows about it, and they’re praised and they bake a cake for them or whatever. Whereas if they make a mistake, nobody seems to notice or care, and it’s just okay and people say “well, mistakes happen”.

Whereas when you do it, everybody talks about your mistakes. Why?

The problem is that a lot of people who do really good work don’t want to focus on how they’re perceived. They say: “I just want to do a good job”. But the sad thing is that’s not enough because perceived competence and actual competence have very little to do with each other. So the first thing you have to understand is the relationship between actual competence and perceived competence. It’s painful for many people to understand that they almost have nothing to do with each other.

The anticipation effect

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about the anticipation effect

Jack Nasher: It’s interesting that if you evoke high expectations concerning your work, you’ll be perceived as more competent. So if you say, “I’ll do great, I’ll be fantastic” etc. that probably reminds you of Donald Trump who really only won the election by saying how great he is. He said: “I’m fantastic, I’m great, I’m super, I’m the best” etc. And it was almost laughable. I thought, okay, this is too much, and yet it worked. Of course you don’t have to exaggerate like that, but if you can evoke high expectations, if you can give other people the impression that you are very confident about your work, you will inspire confidence.

And I have to say that guys usually do that much more often then than women. Women are too modest. They don’t want to evoke high expectations because they just want others to see that they’re good, and then everyone will know how good they are. Well no. If you really want to be perceived as competent, you have to start with evoking high expectations and radiating confidence in your abilities.

Why not under promise and over deliver?

Michael Frank: This is where the book surprised me, because I’m one who tends to under promise and over deliver. I like to promise as little as possible, and then try to deliver the world and everything in it. Where do you draw the line between selling your skills and over promising? And what happens if you over promise, and then you can’t deliver what you promised?

Jack Nasher: Well that’s the interesting thing: Scientific experiments have shown us that even if you over promise and you deliver a terrible result, you will still look better and more competent than if you had predicted the terrible results accurately.

Of course, there are limits to that. If that happens five times in a row, of course your competence will be shattered. But I’m not talking about faking it, I’m talking about your regular everyday tasks, and I’m sure sometimes you do very well, sometimes you do okay, and of course if you fail every time you should change your job. That’s a different question.

But I’m talking about the regular tasks and here it’s really interesting that if you under promise and over deliver, you will be perceived as less competent. Why? Because people think you just got lucky. People, when they entrust you with a task, they want you to take away their fear, because the most important factor when making a decision for people is the fear of making a mistake and you have to keep that in mind.

Most people’s single biggest motivation is to avoid making a mistake. People are scared once they make a decision. So be aware of that, and help them by taking away their fear and giving them confidence in your abilities and people will be thankful for that. And by the way, if you’re modest, a lot of people are modest, and they don’t do that out of kindness, but they just want to be prepared for their failure. So when they fail, they can say: “Well I told you… I told you I wasn’t sure…” That’s not very honorable. If you’re constantly modest about your abilities, you should probably change your job. Why are you so modest?

If you need to get surgery and the surgeon tells you: “You know what, I’m not that good, let’s see if it works, I’m not sure, let’s just pray”. What are you going to think about him or her? Are you going to think: “Wow, nice, so modest!” No! You’re just going to get out of that hospital. So think of this surgeon and the modesty the next time you have a trembling client or colleague or superior in front of you who want to entrust you with a task. Do you really want to be that surgeon that scares them? No you don’t. You want to say: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it”. Then you are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Don’t prepare for your own failure. That’s not honorable. It’s just about giving them confidence and taking them by the hand, and giving them the impression that you will take care of their problem, that’s what it is.

The Halo effect

Jack Nasher: Another important point is using the halo effect in order to communicate good or bad news.

When you have good news, you want to make it shine on your competence as much as possible. And a way to do that is to always give good news in person. Stand up at a meeting. Talk as much as you can. Take the spotlight. Use “I” as much as you can, or “WE” and point to your team, but because you are the one presenting the good news, you are the one who will be associated with it. It’s like when you present the birthday girl with a present that everyone else has chipped in for. You will be the one who is remembered and associated with the good news. So if you have good news, be present as much as possible.

If you have bad news however, it’s the other way around. Just blend in. Stay seated. Take responsibility, acknowledge the problem, but keep it as brief as possible, and don’t show too much of yourself so that any negative associations are as few as possible, and then immediately redirect the whole thing and start talking about the learnings and say it’ll never happen again. So all of a sudden you shift the whole thing from negative to positive, and so even though you clearly admitted your mistakes briefly at the beginning, and you didn’t try to lie about them at all, you then talked about your learnings, and it all ends on a positive note with a positive association.

The primacy and recency effect

Michael Frank: Get to the good news as soon as possible. Jack I also like the way you mentioned utilizing the primacy and recency effect. Can you speak about that.

Jack Nasher: Yeah. Well what if you have good and bad news? That’s the question. If you have a meeting and there’s some good news and some bad news, should you start with the good news or the bad news? And most people usually start with the bad news first before giving you the good news. It’s not good. Because of the halo effect, the first message you give shines on everything else that follows. So if you start with bad news, everything that follows it will look bad too, because you have already created a negative association to the message. So always start with the good news.

Don’t tell them that you’re going to give them good news first, and then the bad news. No, just start with the good news, then give them the bad news, but then always end with something positive because of the recency effect. The recency effect is the last thing that happens and it’s the thing that people will remember the most. It’s not the most important one. The first impression is more important because it shines on everything that follows, but the recency effect, the last impression you leave someone with, is what they’ll remember.

It’s like when real estate agents show you a house, they always show you the nicest room first, then the uglier rooms, and then they end with the second nicest room. So always start with the best news, then the bad news, and then end with the second best news.

Power talking

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about verbal and nonverbal communication. We’ll start with verbal communication and something called “power talking”. What is power talking? Why is it important? How do we do it?

Jack Nasher: Power talking was founded by Robin Lakoff a feminist scientist. And she found that women tend to not make statements, and even when they do make statements, it doesn’t sound like a statement, but more like a question. (With an upward inflection in the voice) That type of talking is often perceived as being very weak.

Power talking is about making statements that sound like statements, not like questions. That’s what good lawyers do. Don’t use an upward inflection in your voice so that your statements sound like questions  because it takes away from your perceived competence.

Nonverbal communication

Jack Nasher: Nonverbal communication is also very interesting because even the distance, how far you stand away from somebody, the angle of how you stand to someone, really influences your perceived competence, as does if you look at somebody, how you look, if you smile, how you smile, and these are all important points, but I want to focus on one thing here and that’s the Dr. Fox experiments

They had an actor go to a conference to give a presentation back in 1970. The actor didn’t know anything about the topic, and yet he aced the presentation and was rated extremely well by people who really knew the topic, even though it wasn’t even a good presentation. It was made out of redundancies and didn’t have any points. They found that the reason it worked was because of his enthusiastic body language. He was just walking around talking passionately about the subject.

So interestingly you will be perceived as much more convincing and competent, if you use body language and talk passionately about the topic. They even did the same experiment using the exact same words with somebody who didn’t display any enthusiasm or passion and was just standing there. It didn’t work. So use body language and enthusiasm when you talk about a topic and that will make all the difference.

Michael Frank: Look at Tony Robbins, even non-verbally he displays extreme confidence and certainty, and certainty is probably one of the most powerful ways to convince people of anything. You’ll convince people if you’re certain whether you’re right or wrong, it’s just the way it works.

Jack Nasher: Exactly. Certainty goes a long way. If you have two people in front of you and they’re arguing over who won the 1956 Olympics and one of them gets out $100 bill and bets on his candidate, who are you going to trust more? It’s this confidence that makes all the difference.

The keys to popularity

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about the keys to popularity. How can we be more likable and attractive to others?

Jack Nasher: A lot of things that will make you more popular are pretty common sense. So if people are told to make a good impression on somebody, almost everyone is successful because we know that we have to be nice to people, we have to be polite, smile etc. however there are some things that aren’t that clear so that’s what I’ve focused on so let me sum up the last 40 years of research into popularity and likability from Edward E. Jones from Princeton:

The first thing is ingratiation. It’s amazing how this actually works.

You know you can get away with so many things just by being nice. Joe Girard the most successful car salesman of all time, just sent out postcards to his customers saying: “I like you”. That was it. That’s all he did. And everybody knew it was just business, and yet people came to him again and again and again.

The other thing is that opinion conformity is really good if you want to be likable, and it’s kind of sad because it basically means you have to suck up and have the same opinion, or at least appear to. It’s interesting to know that people strongly dislike people who don’t agree with them about topics that are important to them. So if you strongly disagree with somebody about something important to them, you should probably just avoid the subject. Just keep it to yourself yourself.

Michael Frank: So be vocal when you agree with someone, and keep it to yourself when you don’t agree with them, especially if it’s something they value a lot e.g. a political or religious opinion

How to compliment someone

I want to come back to compliments for a second, because it’s funny, compliments work even when they’re transparent and someone knows that you’re just sucking up, and you kind give some good examples in the book as to how to compliment in very specific ways.

Jack Nasher: Well if you compliment someone, you shouldn’t do it when you want something from them, but beforehand so you build a reservoir of goodwill early on. And if you do make compliments, make them specific. Don’t say “great job”, but say specifically what you liked about the job.

Michael Frank: I like the way you advise cushioning compliments too, to make them easier for the other person to hear:

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable but… (insert compliment)

Or

“You might not want to hear this, but…” (insert compliment)

So the keys to popularity are ingratiation, which is giving specific compliments and flattery, and opinion conformity. What’s the third one?

Jack Nasher: Self-presentation. Just making a nice impression. And that’s pretty common sense. You know, show interest, smile, and be polite etc.

The power of status

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about status. How does the average person go about increasing their status?

Jack Nasher: It’s interesting. Status is so incredibly important. For example when your doctor tells you something, even if it’s a political opinion on something, people tend to take it seriously even though he’s a doctor and probably knows nothing about politics. So if somebody has a high status, almost everything he or she says will be taken seriously.

So how do you increase your status? Well, there are some ways to do it and of course you can use status symbols, they work actually, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear a Rolex, but it means everything you surround yourself with should have a certain quality, should reflect a certain image. Look at the bag you use, does it reflect what you want to be? Think about the way you dress: You shouldn’t dress for the job you have, you should dress for the job you want to have. 

Habitus and BIRGing

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about Habitus and BIRGing (“Basking In Reflected Glory”)

Jack Nasher: Habitus (“ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions. It is the way that individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it”) is from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He found that some people seem to be very successful because they were raised in a sophisticated or a wealthy family, and because of the way they talk, their accent, and the way they present themselves. You can see when people are standing in a nice hotel lobby that some people are treated very well, and others aren’t at all. So the question is how can you work on your habitus? Well you should probably look at the habitus of people who have the jobs you want to have. And then when it comes time for a promotion, people will probably say, we can imagine him or her in that position.

Michael Frank: And what about BIRGing? (“Basking In Reflected Glory”)

Jack Nasher: Yeah, that’s a term coined by Robert Cialdini. And he said you can profit from the status of your associations. So for example I studied at Oxford University which of course has a very good reputation, but if I make the mistake of saying “well actually it’s not all that, it’s kinda bullshit you know”, and a lot of people do that, this immediately negatively reflects on me because this is the reflected glory of the university.

On the other hand, if I praise my association and say “Oxford was great because we did this and that, and it’s just so many interesting people working together on so many interesting ideas” then all of a sudden, even though I praised something else, another entity, I’m basking in this glory because it reflects right on me. So everything you’re associated with, your former employers, your school, praise them, because it indirectly reflects on you.

How to assess the competence of other people

Michael Frank: Final question: We’ve talked about how to demonstrate our own competence so others will perceive us as being more competent. How do we go about realistically assessing the competence of others?

Jack Nasher: If you want to know if the person across the room is competent, ask yourself two questions: Does he or she ask the right questions? And are they able to distinguish the important aspects from the unimportant aspects of the situation?

Michael Frank: Jack Nasher, thank you for your time

Jack Nasher: Thank you Michael!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jack Nasher

Dr. Jack Nasher, M.Sc. (Oxford)

Jack Nasher, studied and taught at Oxford University and is currently the Professor for Leadership & Organization at Munich Business School and on the faculty of Stanford University. Jack is an expert on reading and influencing human behaviour, particularly applied to negotiations. He trains and advises companies all over the world on negotiation matters and runs the NASHER Negotiation Institute. His books have been published from Austria to China. Jack has been featured on over 100 TV and radio stations.

Jack went to school in Germany, France and the United States. He majored in philosophy and psychology, and went on to complete his law degree with first class honors at Frankfurt Law School. He was appointed Research Associate of Holyell Manor at Balliol College, Oxford University, and received a master’s degree in management at the Said Business School, Oxford University. Jack completed his doctorate on Sir Karl Popper at Vienna University. Stints followed at the M&A law firm SkaddenArps, at the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, and as an Assistant Attaché for the United Nations in New York City.

A founder and investor in companies, movies, real estate, private equity / VC himself, Jack began advising companies in communication and negotiation matters in 2004, as negotiations are the overlap of business, psychology, and law. Since then, Jack has been closely cooperating with companies from all industries and provided them with the latest research findings and best practices from the world of negotiation.  

Jack’s books reached multiple bestselling status, appearing in Russia, Korea, China, Poland etc. Jack is regularly featured in leading publications such as Harvard Business Manager and Zeit. Jack donated 100 % of the royalties of his book on Sir Karl Popper to Human Rights Watch Germany.

He is an avid contributor and reviewer at the world’s leading scientific conferences and was awarded the gold medal for best paper at the International Conference on Applied Psychology 2016 in Colombo/Sri Lanka. 

Jack is a member of the Society of Personality & Social Psychology and a Principal Practitioner of Association of Business Psychologists. He is deeply involved in setting up professional standards for business psychologists.

Jack is an avid mentalist, combining psychological illusions with magic, and has given over 50 shows at the world famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, California.

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