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How to Be a More Influential Person
A counterintuitive way to sell anything
I’ve sold three cars by advertising their flaws.
I am not a salesperson, at least not in the traditional sense. We’re all selling something in some way or another.
But I am not a professional salesman.
This explains why, when I need to sell a car, I tell the prospective buyer everything that’s wrong, malfunctioning, or in need of repair.
This explains why I feel a deeply rooted need to make sure the buyer knows exactly what he or she is getting — warts and all.
My stereotype of a professional salesman is that they don’t care about either.
However, I have sold three cars within the past few years. Each car sold to the first person who looked at it. Each sold for a price above what I was willing to take. Each with the buyer driving away knowing that the vehicle had a lot of problems.
There’s a greater lesson to learn here about a particular form of honesty and its relationship to influence.
You Might Not Sell a Product, But You Probably Sell Ideas
A colleague of mine, Anne, is an engineering director at a large industrial manufacturer in the Midwest. Anne had a new idea, but like many large industrial manufacturers in that region, her company seemed like the place that new ideas went to die.
Touring one of the company’s overseas plants, Anne noticed a system that allowed any employee on the manufacturing line to raise an alert on a quality issue. The system worked. The plant had the highest quality rating of the company’s two dozen manufacturing sites. Line workers used the system regularly, and the result was that the company saved tens of millions of dollars in warranty and recall costs.
Anne compared this with her experiences in the company’s U.S. plants, where employees tended to take a “not my job” approach, afraid to call out teammates’ potential assembly mistakes or admit to their own.
If you’ve read The Toyota Way, you may be familiar with similar dynamics. U.S. and Japanese car manufacturers had a similar dynamic, with one empowering the workers and the other trying to systematize them to the point of mindlessness.
On the flight home, Anne thought about how to import that system to the United States: Who would she need to involve, what obstacles would she encounter, and how long might it all take? While it would take time and certainly wouldn’t be easy, it would be relatively straightforward. She could think of six or seven other similar manufacturing processes that the company had implemented across plants. There was a blueprint.
Then she got her idea.
What if that same system could be adapted to her company’s engineering work?
The company’s engineers had many of the same issues as the assembly workers. Driven relentlessly by senior management to meet cost and delivery targets, the engineers faced underlying negative consequences for speaking up if they noticed substandard technical work or a poor decision. So they stayed quiet, and the company’s products were suffering. Market share was nearing an all-time low, as was the engineering organization’s morale.
Anne saw the potential in this idea and knew it could change the culture of her organization. She also knew that she couldn’t implement the idea herself. It was going to take support from her boss, and her entire team was going to need to buy-in.
Anne secured 20 minutes on the agenda in her boss’s next staff meeting to pitch her idea. When she stood up to present, many of the team members were checking their phones or tapping away on their laptops.
“I have an idea,” Anne started, “and it has all kinds of problems.”
Most of the eyes in the room were suddenly fixed on her. Laptops were ignored. Phones retreated face-down to the table.
How and Why Leading With Flaws Works
In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant outlines several benefits of Anne’s technique. It turns out that being up-front and honest about an idea’s flaws can actually help “sell” the idea to skeptical audiences. Here’s the how and why.
1. It’s disarming.
The audience is expecting you to sell them on the strengths of your proposal, not tell them what’s wrong with it. They’ve come prepared to poke holes in your idea, to shoot it down, to find reasons not to pursue it. When you do it for them, you catch them off-guard. It’s surprising, and you’re likely to have their full attention. Disarmed, they’re more willing to truly listen to the merits of your idea.
2. You seem smarter.
Teresa Amabile’s research has shown that we perceive negative, critical reviewers of intellectual work as more intelligent than positive, effusive reviewers. We’ll judge the film critic who rips the movie apart as smarter than the one who lavishes praise upon it. We’ll assume the positive reviewer was somehow “duped” into thinking the film was worth the small-business loan it takes to go to the movies. How smart can he possibly be if he thought it was that great? And who’s paying him off, anyway? Being openly critical of your own idea can raise the audience’s assessment of your IQ.
3. You’re perceived as more trustworthy.
Accentuating the flaws in an idea you’re selling to a skeptical audience shows transparency and authenticity. One of the guys who bought a car from me said to a mutual friend, “He knew everything about the car, including everything that was wrong with it. I felt like I had to buy it.” You leave your audience with the feeling that they truly understand what they’re getting, not the sales pitch version of it.
4. The audience likes your idea more.
By presenting the flaws, it makes it more difficult for your audience to find more of them, and they’re left with a more positive impression of your proposal.
Turning Skeptics into Advocates
The real magic of selling ideas by accentuating the flaws comes next, when you turn the audience of problem-seeking, let-me-find-the-holes-in-this-argument skeptics into advocates seeking to help you resolve the issues.
By presenting flaws instead of selling points, you kick your audience’s brains out of problem-finding mode and into problem-solving mode. You’ve given them a problem to solve, and they’ll be more than happy to oblige.
Disarmed and engaged by your approach, your audience automatically stops trying to figure out what’s wrong with your idea and starts thinking about solutions to the problems you’ve presented.
And now they’re hooked. Bought in. They’ve participated in making your idea even better, solved a problem you couldn’t solve on your own, and it isn’t just your idea anymore.
It’s their idea, too.
And the next time you encounter an unexpected roadblock, the next time you need to replan, the next time you need to convince a member of the leadership team that your project makes business sense and is going to pay off after implementation, it won’t just be you doing the convincing.
My Latest Sale
I just sold a 2009 Toyota minivan with lots of miles on it. We used it to haul three young boys to all the places that you haul three young boys, including several cross-country road trips. It’s well worn and has mechanical issues.
There’s a small leak in the air-conditioning system, and it needs to be recharged with freon every summer. The lamp on the passenger-side seat warmer indicator is out. The glove compartment sticks shut, and you have to bang it with the heel of your hand in just the right spot to get it to open.
I disclosed all of this within the first 10 minutes of talking to the first potential purchaser. I even showed him how to bang the glove compartment open. I gave him the key to take it for a drive, and he offered me a credit card as collateral. I shook my head.
“I trust you.”
He returned a short while later. We shook hands. I’d sold another vehicle.