How to Build Real Influence in Life and Business

Hint: It’s not about follower count

Danny Forest
Jun 9 · 7 min read
Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

If I use the word “influence” or “influencer,” what does it mean to you?

Now, if I asked you who influenced you the most in your life in a positive way, who would it be?

How big is their “follower count”?

Pretty low, right?

Here’s what a real influencer does:

  1. They teach you how to think;
  2. They challenge you to be better; and
  3. They provide a role model for you.

Two days ago, I asked my wife who influenced her the most in life. Her answer was me (aww) and one of her previous bosses. My answer to her on that same question was her (aww) and a previous colleague of mine.

If we remove me from the equation, the combined “follower count” of these people is pretty close to 0. Yet all of them have changed other people’s lives.

If you do want to build influence, ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of person do I want to be remembered as?
  • What would life look like if I gave it my all?

I asked myself these very same questions about a year ago. They come from Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits. In the book, he mentions how high performers have all built the habit of developing influence.

You may or may not care for high performance, but if you care about the three characteristics of being an influencer from above, read on.

Testing Your Influence

Again, an influencer does these three things:

  1. They teach you how to think;
  2. They challenge you to be better; and
  3. They provide a role model for you.

Thus, you can measure your influence by answering these questions:

  1. Have you been able to change how someone thinks?
  2. Have you challenged someone else to do better? Did they act on it and really did get better?
  3. Has someone called you their mentor before? Have they mentioned you being their role model?

It doesn’t matter how many people you influence. I’d rather change one person’s life than have10,000 followers and not influence any of them positively.

These are probably the most important factors on a macro level. On a micro level, you can ask yourself:

  • How many times are people agreeing to help me with my requests to them?
  • How many times are people asking me “How can I help you?” without having to ask them?
  • How many times a day do I do something good for others?

Check out to be evaluated, amongst other things, on influence.

Back in June 2018, out of the six habits, influence was my second lowest, at 3.83 out of 5. I took the test again six months later. My score was now 4.5 out of 5.

My point is, you can improve your influence. And I can help you make that happen! Here’s how:

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

“Brian, how did you get to connect with the top CEOs in Ireland?” I ask my friend Brian Pennie.

He replied: “I just asked.”

Outside the fact that you do need to craft the right message and have a good (but short) story to tell, all you really need to do to connect with someone is to just ask. Studies show that people tend to say yes over three times as often as people thought they would.

The more you ask, the more you know how influential you are. How do you get people to say yes to you?

2. Change Your Mindset on Rejection

Stop dreading a rejection. Take it as an opportunity to learn. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s that simple.

Take rejection, losing, failure, and adversity as opportunities to learn.

“I never lose. I only win, or learn.” — Nelson Mandela

That’s the approach you need to take. I don’t pretend it’s easy since we’re wired to see failure as a bad thing because of school. The higher your grades in school, the harder this mindset shift will be.

Think about this as well:

“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison

“Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.” — Zig Ziglar

It’s the people who don’t give up in the face of adversity that succeed and influence others.

I had a good start when I began to write on Medium. Then it tanked for eight months, but I pushed through, influencing one person at a time. I kept reminding myself that it’s not about the number of people you influence, it’s about how you influence them.

What rejection are you dreading? What’s the worst that can happen?

3. Master the Three Cs of Challenging People

My friends Michael Thompson and Maarten van Doorn challenge me all the time. When I ask for feedback on a piece I wrote, they let me know it’s crap in a variety of ways (thankfully never in a mean way!). They influence me to be better.

Who challenges you? How do they challenge you? Do they bring you to your next level?

When it comes to challenging people, influential people do it in three ways, according to Burchard:


“They give people feedback, direction, and high expectations for living up to universal values such as honesty, integrity, responsibility, self-control, patience, hard work, and persistence.”

Think of this as support, not confrontation. Some people see that as criticism. Most of the time, it’s not.


“[They] are explicit in their expectations for how people should treat each other. […] They keep pushing for [people] to unite.”

Influential people challenge you to make more connections and strengthen relationships.


“[They] push [you] to add more value or to be more generous. They challenge you to contribute more looking ahead — to create or innovate so that you make the future better.”

A good boss or a good teacher will do that for you.

4. Tell Authentic Stories

The moment I learned to tell better stories is the moment I had the power to influence more people. The way you tell a story defines if someone will listen to you or not. Two years ago, if I took the test from above, my influence would have been somewhere between 1 and 2 out of 5.

People started listening to me when I was able to convey my ideas in a clear and compelling way. I had things to say before that, but until I knew how to say it, no one listened.

I know you have things to say, now learn to say it!

How do you tell better stories that get people’s attention?

Simple. Capitalize on your uniqueness. I don’t want to hear your bullcrap on how you’re not different from others. Everyone is.

Who are your favourite writers on Medium? Why are they your favourite?

I assure you it’s not their content or lessons, because these have been recycled for decades, if not centuries. It’s the way they impart their ideas to you that touch you, that triggers emotions. You relate to them. You feel their authenticity.

Brian Pennie is not the only recovering heroin addict, but he’s a damn good storyteller who will influence you in many ways.

Shannon Ashley is not the only fat single mama (her words), but you can bet that she’s going to tell you her stories in the most authentic way imaginable. By doing so, she became one of the top influencers on Medium.

5. Give More Than You Ask For

My friend Niklas Göke is a classic giver. He’s constantly and genuinely helping people. In a group we’re both part of, he’s always giving. When I need brutally honest feedback, he’s there to give it, no need to ask.

So, on the rare occasion that he asks for something, we all give him what he asks for. And it’s never a big ask. Talk about influence!

Isn’t it true that you’re more willing to help people that help you?

When I talk about giving, people are afraid and think about the commitment required.

“What commitment?” I ask them.

Is thanking someone “commitment”? Is leaving quick feedback on something “commitment”?

Giving doesn’t mean taking all your time to do something. A small thoughtful gift is much better than no gift at all. People recognize that.

Your Influence Checklist

Developing influence, like any other skill or habit, can’t be done without action. That’s why I’m giving you a checklist that you can use regularly to help you reach your influence goals:

This makes for a nice list to put on the fridge!

Use it! Take action! Don’t let me not influence you today! :) You can download a PDF of this list here (no opt-in).


Influence is a skill. Influence is a habit. You can’t build it without action. The more you pursue a “follower count,” the less real influence you get to build. Use the checklist above. It will guide you on your journey to influence.

Don’t be afraid to ask, but always give more. Positively challenge someone. Don’t fear rejection, embrace it. Learn to tell authentic stories. Only then will you have true influence.

You can do this!

Better Marketing

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Danny Forest

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Viking polymath writing for today’s knowledge economy, building a more skillful tomorrow.

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies