Turn and Face the Strange: Why Your Real Self Is the Most Persuasive

An excerpt from The Soulful Art of Persuasion

The first step in developing a persuasive character is learning to be unapologetically yourself. 

I know, I know, "Be yourself" is nothing fresh. You've heard it a million times. It's something you say to a friend who's preparing for a job interview or about to ask someone out on a date. But what people usually mean when they say "Be yourself" is, "Relax, be natural, and don't overthink it."

That's not what I'm talking about, because in most situations where we are trying to be persuasive, our instincts lead us in the wrong direction. We try to hide those parts of ourselves that we assume the other person won't appreciate. And we say and do things we think will make us more attractive to our audience. We smile more than usual or act excited about something we don't really care about. We speak in more formal language than we normally do in real life. Put simply, we try to fake it till we make it.

But that's not what human beings respond to. They can see what you're doing from a mile away, whether they realize it or not. Recent experiments by researchers Leanne ten Brinke, Dayna Stimson and Dana R. Carney at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business demonstrate just how amazing we are at unconsciously detecting bullshit. Their work set out to discover whether split-second, gut-level reactions were better at identifying dishonesty than our conscious judgment. To do this, the researchers conducted an experiment in which they asked a group of undergraduates to look at videotaped interrogations of people suspected of stealing $100. Only some of the suspects actually stole the money. But every person videotaped was told to deny that they were guilty. Some actually had done it, but everyone denied it.

Surprisingly, when the undergraduates were asked to consciously identify which suspects were lying and which were telling the truth, their answers weren't very accurate. In fact, they managed only 54 percent accuracy, just barely better than if they guessed. 

Here's what's incredible: When the researchers measured the undergraduates' unconscious split-second gut reactions to the videos, the students proved much better at sorting the liars from the truth-tellers. Specifically, participants who were thinking about one of the videotaped liars responded faster to words like "dishonest," "deceitful" and "untruthful" than to words like "honest" or "genuine" during a test designed to measure automatic mental reactions. When they were thinking about one of the truthful suspects, the opposite was true.

In other words, what Brinke, Stimson and Carney's work was showing us is that people are pretty impressive at detecting dishonesty with split-second, gut-level accuracy—way better than they are at consciously calling bullshit. So when you tell little white lies to get in your audience's good graces, there's a good chance you'll end up tripping their deception alarm right off the bat, without their even thinking about it. They may not know exactly what you're hiding, but they'll know you're hiding something. And once they get even a whiff of insincerity, you become just another salesperson trying to put one over on them. 

There are two ways to get around someone's built-in bullshit sensor. First, you can learn to be an expert bullshitter. It's not easy, but people can certainly do it. They're called con artists. And if you'd like to become one, there are other books out there for you. This isn't one of them. For those of us who enjoy sleeping well at night, there's another option: Stop trying to get people to like you, and start being fully who you are. Or, to put it differently, don't be David Robert Jones when he was making the by-the-numbers music he thought people wanted. Be Ziggy Stardust, and put your weirdest, most honest and wonderful self out there, even if that means violating a few social norms.

I'll give you a personal example. For years I pretended to like wine. I've been to Napa probably a few dozen times. And each time I followed the drill: I swished and spat. I held my glass up to the light and swirled it around. I used words like "oaky" and "full-bodied" like I knew what I was talking about. I memorized some of the regions and the varietals and which wine pairs with which food. I thought I was super-bougie.

I convinced myself that I enjoyed all of this, but I really didn't. I actually hate wine. It's acidic. It makes my teeth turn purple. And after drinking it, wine makes me want to go knock out. I am more of a high-energy guy. I'll take a mescal or vodka cocktail any night of the week (every night during some tough weeks). I just felt like wine was the kind of thing I was supposed to like, so I went with the flow—especially when I was with someone I wanted to impress.

These days, when I sit down at a restaurant, I hand my wine glass back to the waiter first chance I get. It turns out that people respect that. The wine lovers I know respect it the most, because they definitely don't want to spend all night listening to a poseur recite some pretentious bullshit he tried to learn in Napa. Plus, it means there's more wine for them. Turning off your filter and showing a little psychic skin can give you a real leg up when you're trying to sway your audience. 

There are a number of reasons why this works. First, an original human being—with real likes and dislikes, out-there interests and surprising obsessions—is something other people can recognize and relate to, whether they fully identify with that person or not. After all, diversity is the one thing we have in common. 

Also, you become memorable, a known quantity, and that makes you far more trustworthy than someone who seems to be putting on a show. It also gives you a chance to share a part of yourself and tell personal stories.

I'm shameless about filling the walls of my office with images of artists, musicians and historical figures whom I truly love and am inspired by. Sure, the client I'm trying to land might hate the Clash or Prince, but she almost certainly loves some kind of music or art or cultural icon. That makes the picture of Joe Strummer something she can relate to, and it helps make me into a human being instead of a businessperson trying to get something out of her.

But there's another reason to put your whole, authentic self out there whenever possible: It's almost impossible to anticipate what parts of your identity other people will be drawn to. You might think that your collection of tiny porcelain cats, ski resort shot glasses, retro Nike sneakers, Marvel comic books, or whatever you're obsessed with, will be incomprehensible to your audience, but it might be exactly the thing that they appreciate most about you. And it makes you memorable. On top of that, the fact that you opened yourself up to scrutiny conveys confidence. And when it comes to persuasion, confidence is power.

When you let your freak flag fly, it shows the other person that they are trusted, respected and welcome. And you also welcome hearing about their unique interests and obsessions. 

That's why it pays to be your strangest self. But here's the tricky part: None of these reasons should be on your mind when you're actually seeking to persuade someone. If you're only putting yourself out there in order to make a sale, then you're not being genuine—you're being manipulative. You need to get to a place where the uniqueness you show in your interactions comes from someplace real. It needs to be something you do without thinking. Letting people in on your quirks makes you interesting and memorable. Who wants to blend in and be bland and forgettable? 

It comes easily to some people—and it becomes easier with age—but it usually takes awareness, discipline and practice. Not even Bowie did it naturally—he had to go off and learn how to do it.


This is an excerpt from The Soulful Art of Persuasion, is a revolutionary guide to becoming a master influencer in an age of distrust through the cultivation of character-building habits that are essential to both personal growth and sustained business success. This isn't a book full of tips and life-hacks. Instead, The Soulful Art of Persuasion will develop the habits that others want to be influenced by. This book is based on a radical idea: Persuasion isn't about facts and argument. It's all about personal character.

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Jason Harris
Jason Harris is CEO of Mekanism and the author of The Soulful Art of Persuasion.

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