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February 5, 2013
Influence 101: Analyzing Your Audience for Personal Success
 
The most entertaining part of Super Bowl Sunday was not the game, but its television advertisements. That’s not especially surprising when you consider that the average cost of a Super Bowl ad was $3.7 million. All that moolah, much of which was spent on analyzing their audience and trying to determine what will pique interests and sell products.
 
Over the years and despite the big bucks, businesses have made some pretty big blunders in their analysis of audiences, especially when they’re marketing to different cultural groups.
  • The Coors slogan “Turn it loose” when translated into Spanish read “suffer from diarrhea.”
  • “Schweppes Tonic Water” when translated into Italian read “Schweppes toilet.”
  • In the United States, the Japanese tried to market a baby soap called “Skinababe.”
Sometimes, however, a correct analysis of a client need can get you into trouble. A few years ago, Target created a pregnancy-prediction model based upon big data science and sent coupons for baby clothes and cribs to their customers. It turned out that one recipient was a high school teen who had not yet informed her father of the pregnancy. The man walked into a local Target store, asked to see the manager, and gave him hell. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again. The father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”
 
The lesson here is simple: If you want to be influential, know your audience and adapt accordingly. There’s a great deal of research about the necessity of being able to see the world from other people’s point of view. This is exactly what influence is all about: adapting or framing a message so it coincides with the receiver’s point of view. In today’s career world of flattened hierarchies and social networks, success often goes to those who can influence others.
 
Although there are a number of tools for understanding and influencing your audience, whether your boss, your team, or your colleague, they reduce to four big picture insights:
 
Pay attention to the situation. I put that first because too many professionals analyze the characteristics of the individual and ignore the situation and the context. All the research reveals that situation is just as important, and sometimes more important than the receiver’s attitudes and objectives. Obviously, situations vary for teams, colleagues, and bosses. So when you need to influence someone, stay focused on the situation. Is the team new to a project or are they loaded with the given project expertise? Is there a tight deadline? Are some people on the team at risk for lay-off? Is it nearly 6 p.m. and most tired from the long day, or early in the morning? Is the setting noisy, hot, cold? Is the team under a lot of stress, or ready to rethink some previous project commitments? How well do the team members know each other, and have they worked with each other before? Who has the power? How diverse are the views of the team members?
 
Obviously, the number of possible situations is endless. Even so, recognizing the facts on the ground can help you adapt. It’s important to try to put yourself in the shoes of your receivers. Try to figure out what the present situation of your team mates is doing to your message and adapt accordingly.
 
Keep your team’s (individual’s) mind in mind. In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a chauvinist advertiser who, after a freak accident, is able to read women’s minds. So Gibson not only becomes an expert at attracting women, but can design advertisements that they can’t resist. The movie visually illustrates how much easier influence might be if you can look into people’s minds. That would make it possible to know and understand their attitudes, values, and needs, and then, like Mel Gibson, adapting your message would be simple.
 
Although you’re not liable to be The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane, you can learn to make educated guesses about a person’s values and objectives in a given situation.  Anthropologists have taught us to watch people’s behaviors because behaviors tell us what’s going on in the mind. Sure, some managers keep their cards close to the chest in many business settings, but there all always settings where there behavior tells what’s going on. It pays to be observant, and to occasionally ask questions. You’ll be surprised how often a manager will answer an “innocent question” that tells you a great deal.
 
In a team setting, teams that have worked together for some time take on a fairly uniform consensus, but there’s usually an outlier that makes her values clear. And often, there’s a “four-year-old” on the team who’ll tell all. There are really just three things that you need to know about an individual or about a team’s mindset.
  • What do "they" want that you can give them? 
  • What do you want? What are your own goals and priorities?
  • What are the resources you have to offer them to give you what you want?
Audience and communicator states and traits play a big role in influence. There’s a ton of systematic research finding that the most successful influencers are perceived as both likable and competent. The two go together and merely one characteristic eventually sabotages the influencer. Likable, but not perceived as competent will eventually result in being ignored. Competent but not likable will result in being distanced and avoided.
 
There are a number of audience and individual states that offer influencing opportunities. Anxious people require specific recommendations, otherwise they’ll become unpredictable. High self-monitors respond well to messages that promise to help them succeed and “fit in.” Ego-involved people, those whose self-esteem is up front and may be fairly defensive, have narrow latitudes of acceptance. Authoritarians, those who are inevitably obedient, respond better to people in powerful positions. They’re looking for what “the boss thinks.” Cognitively complex people, in contrast, are more willing to tolerate perspectives that are inconsistent with their own.
 
In today’s highly diverse business cultures, pay attention to the differences.  A person who can adapt to people of different ages, backgrounds, education, genders, religions, political orientation, and cultures has a leg up on influencing. Research shows that if we were to name the three people, outside of our family, who are best friends, the values would be very close and often identical. And living in homogenous communities teaches us little about the skills of adaptability.
 
To learn how to influence and adapt to a diverse group, we need to take time to get to know people very well. And, in spite of our love for social media, relationships that are face-to-face continue to provide the best opportunities for that exercise. Over the last five years of the Great Recession thousands of people have found themselves rather unexpectedly out of a job and walking the streets. Far more often than most want to believe, professionals in the streets have often been patsies. They have no one to blame except themselves, while their influential colleagues stand smiling the knowing smile of the jujitsu master.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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