Cult of Personality What Is Influence?

Cult of Personality


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In this season of Margins, we’re breaking down influence. It’s a topic that can seem enormously expansive — and enormously obnoxious. Just say the word “influencer” out loud, and you’ll see what I mean.

So I’m going to write about snowboarding instead.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve done a lot of snowboarding. I bike to my local hill, hike up the bootpack, burn a whole bunch of calories, and shred my way down on my beloved Rossignol Sushi.

But where did that Sushi come from? In the 1960s, a man named Sherman Poppen strapped two of his daughter’s skis together and invented something he called the Snurfer. Essentially, it was a standup sled, designed to “surf” on snow. For most, it was a novelty Christmas gift that likely sat in the garage for years. But for a few people, it formed the basis of memories they’d never forget, and it developed a cult following — and inspired a few enterprising Snurfers to improve upon the design, adding features like bindings and steel edges to improve the riding experience.

The most famous Snurfer? Jake Burton Carpenter, whose company Burton is practically synonymous with snowboarding. Jake and his wife Donna grew Burton into the brand it is today and led the way in transforming snowboarding from a punk rock upstart banned from ski resorts to a sport that even John Kerry loves.

Now, would there be snowboarding without Jake? Yes. But not in the way that we know it. Jake did not invent snowboarding, but his combination of creativity, passion and business savvy grew it into a mainstream sport.

Last year, Jake passed away after a battle with cancer, and resorts around the country participated in “A Day for Jake,” offering free lift tickets to get people out riding. In 1985, none of these resorts would have let Jake and his snowboards in. Now, my grandma asks me what kind of snowboard I want for Christmas.

I’ll be honest. I had never thought about Jake much until his death. But his life is a testament of why influence is such a fascinating subject: a novelty winter toy inspired Jake to do something big, and here in 2020, that same influence made my quarantine afternoons a hell of a lot more fun than they could have been.

If that isn’t influence, I don’t know what is.

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What Does Influence Really Mean?

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also serves as the director of the school’s IC² Institute. His most recent book is “Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career.”

Mary Ellen turned to Art for some help in defining what exactly “influence” means. Art pointed out that the common definition of influence has to do with the power of people’s ideas — an idea so powerful, perhaps, it changes the world. But having an idea, Art explains, isn’t enough. Instead, at its core, influence is about something else: behavior. “If you look at the relationship between what people say they're going to do and what they actually do, a lot of the most difficult and profound pieces of influence have to do with affecting people's behavior, rather than affecting the way that they think about things or the way that they say things,” he explains. “So a lot of what we're trying to do when we really want to have influence is to affect the way that people act.”

So how do you get people to change how they act? The answer is familiar to any marketer: appeal to the emotions. Emotions, Art explains, are simply how our mind interprets feelings. The key, he says, is to find a way to affect those interpretations. He gives a company switching over to a new software system as an example. People will likely be angry and frustrated at switching — and blame certain issues on the system itself. But if the person in charge tells people upfront that their issues are with the system are the result of changing their habits, then people will approach the change with a more open mind. In other words, it’s an emotional appeal — and one way to wield the power of influence.

“To my mind, influence and particularly its most difficult parts are really about trying to change somebody else's behavior.”

You Don’t Have to Be the Life of the Party

Beverly Brooks Thompson is a fundraising consultant and managing director at Carter Global. In addition to her nonprofit work, she has also run for political office in Louisiana.

Beverly is a self-described extrovert, which begs the question: Do you have to be an extrovert to wield influence? What about the person who’s a bit shyer? Are they simply destined to never change anyone’s behaviors?

Not so fast, says Beverly. Every person has a different personality, she points out, and we all respond to different types of people as well. Honesty and integrity are just as important to cultivating influence.

But maybe it’s the idea of an influencer itself that has us tripped up. Beverly points out that the word has taken on a negative connotation in our social media-driven world. Instead, maybe we should call those people “attention-getters,” says Beverly. “I think we’ve really gotten away from the true context of what true influence is about,” she explains. “I think it comes down to the work and doing what you say you’re going to do.”

“I think we’ve gotten away from the word ‘influencer,’ in a negative way.”

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Rex New is a multimedia content producer. When he’s not driving his coworkers bonkers with extremely detailed feedback, he can be found in Jackson, Wyoming, snowboarding in the winter and biking and hiking in the summer. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California and received a Writers Guild Award nomination for co-writing “Dance Camp,” YouTube’s first original movie.


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