of “compelling.” According to Google, “compelling” means “evoking interest, attention or admiration in a powerful or irresistible way.” Other synonyms offered are: “enthralling, absorbing gripping, riveting and spell-binding.” Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be riveting and spell-binding? Google’s definition is probably nearest and dearest to Neffinger and Kohut because it covers all the successful people in their book, from Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey to successful salespeople, journalists and spies. However, not EVERY definition of compelling describes positive or desirable human traits. Let’s take Dictionary.com: “tending to compel, as to force or push toward a course of action.” (This is sounding more like the psychopath version.) Or how about Merriam-Webster’s definition: “strong and forceful: causing you to feel that you must do something.” Not bad, but it sounds awfully close to bullying, depending on the ethics of the compelling person. Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Jihad Johnny are compelling AND evil. Hopefully, future terrorists and criminals will NOT be reading
Wouldn’t it be great to have such a compelling personality that you could persuade people to buy your product, adopt your point of view, or follow you to the ends of the earth? I promise I wouldn’t be a psychopath, and I’d really enjoy that kind of power. If you’re an empty nester/baby boomer like me, there may be a growing sense of urgency about writing the next chapter of your life. In the blink of an eye—or so it seems—children grow up, fly away from the nest, and start their adult lives.
Now, you see them. Now you don’t. Poof! Gone!
Since my children are adults (or trying to be), I’m forced to recognize that I’ve become (gulp!) an older adult. More time is behind me than ahead of me. Better write the blog, publish the book and travel to unseen parts of the world with my husband, before I’m TOO old. In other words, hurry up and live your dream, become a new—and hopefully MORE compelling—person before it’s too late.
What are the qualities of compelling people that catapult them to success? Answering that question is the subject of Compelling People –The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, by John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut. Using cutting edge research along with their own work with businessmen, politicians and Nobel Prize winners, the authors reveal how people judge and persuade each other. If you want to learn the ins and outs of succeeding at everything in your life—whether personal or professional—this book is an informative and interesting (dare I say compelling?) read.
Before I share my reactions to Compelling People, let’s start by looking at some of the definitions Compelling People for tips on how to become more charismatic.
According to Neffinger and Kohut’s analysis, compelling people possess an abundance of two simple (but often conflicting) qualities: strength and warmth. Strength, they say, is the province of people who “get things done” and the measure of how much an individual can “impose their will on the world.” Warmth, on the other hand, refers to empathy, familiarity and love. Achieving the perfect balance of strength and warmth is a much more complicated endeavor than you might imagine. It’s much more difficult—surprise, surprise—to be viewed in a positive light if you’re a strong woman. (Witness the ups and downs of Hillary Clinton). And, of course, it’s trickier to show warmth as a man without being perceived as weak.
What’s best about Compelling People is that it leads to self-examination. What moments in your life have you been most successful and compelling? How did you display strength or warmth in the past, and how might you do so more effectively in the future? I found myself remembering my campaign for kindergarten rep at my son’s elementary school. After giving an impromptu speech to an auditorium filled with hundreds of parents I’d never met before, I got elected! Why did they vote for me? Maybe because I was lucky enough to speak last. I’d had the opportunity to hear the other candidates and learn from their mistakes. By the time it was my turn, I figured out the best way to deal with my nervousness: a little self-deprecating humor and a convincing riff about how my years in public relations would make me a diplomatic and effective advocate for their children.
An even better example comes to mind when I recall the way Henry managed to get our daughter, Sarah, accepted at a special education school where she’d been wait listed. Henry employed the perfect mix of strength and warmth. Unable to reach the school directors on the phone to plead for our daughter, Henry showed up at the school without an appointment.
“Both directors are in meetings,” he was told. “They won’t see you without an appointment.”
“I’ll wait,” he assured the receptionist, settling into the waiting room and beginning to read legal briefs.
An hour later, my husband was reluctantly ushered in, if only to clear the waiting room. Armed with adorable pictures of Sarah (warmth) and a promise from a prominent child psychiatrist to offer their teachers a workshop if they accepted our daughter (strength), Henry pitched a compelling plea. The result? Our daughter got the first available opening.
Perhaps the best and most enjoyable examples of compelling people offered in the book are Ayn Rand and the Beatles. These two are considered polar opposites. For Ayn Rand and her followers, strength is everything. Her view of the world is bleak: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The downside of this philosophy is that power alone can get things done through force and coercion. That’s not the world we want to build, is it? People who are all strength and no warmth may inspire fear and obedience, but they’re unlikely to earn much affection and love. At the other extreme, are the Beatles, who rose to fame with songs like “All You Need is Love,” in opposition to the Vietnam War. While the Beatles are perhaps, the most successful musical group of all time, plenty of people still believe nice guys finish last. Alas, I can’t carry a tune, and I’ll NEVER win the prize for Miss Congeniality. But maybe I can add a tablespoon of assertiveness and smile more often.
Small gestures count. Many ingredients contribute to people’s perceptions of strength and warmth, including: verbal strength, voice, smiles, head tilts, handshakes, eye contact, and gestures. Even hormones contribute to the impression we make. More testosterone makes us seem stronger; oxytocin pumps up warmth. I particularly liked the observations about Clint Eastwood’s “flinty smile” as a successful balance of strength and warmth.
As a baby boomer, still learning (and struggling) to manage technology and social media, I found the authors’ suggestions on how to courteously conduct these “conversations” with people in cyberspace especially helpful. I will certainly keep their ideas in mind as I continue to blog and tweet. I also particularly appreciated Neffinger and Kohut’s brief discussion of disability. As a mother of a young woman on the autistic spectrum, this quote was music to my ears: “Adversity builds character. Someone who manages to project even a moderate level of warmth and strength in the face of it is someone we can all admire.” Bravo, to Sarah and all her friends, who bravely go out into the world with their heads held high. The powers of persuasion sometimes transcend words.