Want to Be Influential? Start a Religion

In the third most popular TED talk to date, titled “How great leaders inspire action”, Simon Sinek introduces us to the concept of the Golden Circle:

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Sinek claims that communicating from inside out, from the Why to the What, is key to delivering an inspiring message. Take Apple for instance. Their marketing message is not:

We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?

Instead, here’s how Apple communicates:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

The latter message first connects its audience on an emotional, subconscious level (Why do I buy?), and only then on a pragmatic, factual level (What do I buy?). By doing so, Apple engages people much more than its competitors.

Even though his commercial examples are questionable, Sinek has seemingly good intentions. He also gives Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers as examples of inspiring leaders, who differentiated themselves by putting purpose first. So purpose, cause and belief are much more important than facts or plans or figures when you want people to relate or follow.

Sinek makes a compelling story, but it is someone else who really mastered these techniques, 80 years ago: Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, a pioneer of modern propaganda and a practitioner of large-scale manipulation. One of his most famous campaigns was to make women smoking in public socially acceptable.

In the ’20s, women were allowed to smoke only in designated areas, otherwise they were arrested. For tobacco moguls, this meant a loss of profit, so they hired Bernays to help. In 1929, he staged the Easter parade in New York City, showing models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes, which he called “Torches of Freedom”. See what Bernays did there? He presented smoking in light of an (unrelated) social cause: women’s freedom. The result? Since then, women started lighting up more and more, until it finally became socially acceptable.

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Bernays knew long before Sinek that a successful discourse isn’t just one presenting facts. Rather, the facts should be tied to how they make people feel. Feelings first, facts second. This idea remodelled how advertising was done in the 20th century. Look at the car ad below. Want to be a winner and get the feeling of royal satisfaction? Of course you do. You don’t want that V8 engine for its impressive technical properties, but for how it makes you feel. Not to mention the cake the woman is holding — how is that even slightly related to a car?

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Both Sinek and Bernays discovered what it takes to be influential. But when talking about influence, you cannot ignore the most influential person that has ever lived: Jesus Christ.

Jesus was an excellent orator, speaking to large crowds many times. The longest continuous section of him speaking that can be found in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts his discourse with his vision, in the form of eight Beatitudes:

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

This is the grand vision, this is Sinek’s “Why?”. The concrete rules and commandments (e.g., You shall not commit adultery), come only later in the discourse.

Just like Jesus, every influential company today almost created a cult around it. They talk about early adopters and Evangelisation. The CEOs are prophets of the modern day — they see a new possible future and change the world according to their dreams. We think societies become more profane, when in fact we just replace a dogma with another. It would be interesting to see if 2000 years from now, we’ll call that “2000 years after Steve Jobs” or we’ll find today’s convention, “4000 years after Jesus Christ”, still satisfactory.

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