Influence PEOPLE With Brian Ahearn

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TSP Brian | Influence People

Episode Summary:

Having influence over people without being manipulative is a skill in itself. This episode, Brian Ahearn, the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, joins John Livesay to talk about the fascinating story of how he began his journey to reimagine influence and persuasion. He touches on the importance of grasping the skill of influence and its effects, not only in business but also in your personal life and relationships. Learn the true meaning of persuasion and understand the principles behind effectively using this skill to affect change in your surroundings. Brian also gives his insight on looking at improving yourself from a different perspective. Plus, know why not everything a successful person does will have the same effect on you and how you can approach this scenario differently. 

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Influence PEOPLE With Brian Ahearn 

Our guest is Brian Ahearn, the author of Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical. Brian said that the ability to be persuasive can all come from the acronym PEOPLE. The first P is being Powerful. When you get people to change how they see themselves, that’s what causes them to be willing to change their behavior. One of his favorite quotes is, “Nothing is high or low, but comparing it makes it so.” He gives an interesting look at how price points and value are created. Just because something is working for somebody else doesn’t mean it can work for you. Find out more about this episode.

Our guest is Brian Ahearn. He is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE and an international trainer, TEDx presenter, and consultant. He specializes in applying the science of influence in everyday business situations. Brian is one of only twenty individuals in the world who currently holds the Cialdini Method Certified Trainer Designation. You might remember a previous episode where I interviewed Dr. Robert Cialdini. This specialization was earned directly from Dr. Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence. Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical was named one of the top 100 Influence Books of all time by Book Authority. Brian, welcome to the show.

It’s my pleasure to be here, John. I’m excited to speak with you.

You and I love what motivates people to change their behavior or take action. We also have love of stories. With that said, based on your introduction, I doubt you were a little boy growing up going, “Mom and Dad, I’m going to change the world and become an expert on influence.” You can take us back as far as you want as to when you first had an awareness that this topic was even of interest to you.

It’s a great story. I was working for an insurance company. A former coworker, somebody who’d been in my department came down one day and gave a videotape to my boss and I. It was Robert Cialdini presenting at Stanford University. This was in the 2000s. At that time, one of my responsibilities was sales training for our internal associates that were engaging with insurance agents. I watched this video and it was The Power of Persuasion and the light bulb came on. Immediately, I understood that the psychology that Robert Cialdini was talking about was the underpinning of all sales. The other thing that jumped out at me was that it was research-based. I love that. I felt like I could confidently get behind it.

The third thing that grabbed me was his stance on ethics. He was very clear about non-manipulative ways to get people to do things. I started to use that video in some training around the company and show it. We would talk about the concepts. In the meantime, I signed up for some of Stanford’s marketing because it was such a great resource. I knew they must have others. One day, one of their marketing flyers came across my desk, and in bold letters at the top, it said Best Seller. Right underneath it, Influence Persuasion or even Manipulation. I thought, “I cannot believe they use that word.” He was so clear in his talk about non-manipulative ways. The lady who introduced him said non-manipulative ways. I like to consider myself a good person, a moral person. I felt like I needed to address it.

Getting people to change their self-identity helps them change their behavior. Click To Tweet

I emailed Stanford and I said, “I don’t know anybody who wants to be manipulated. I don’t know anybody who wants to be known as a good manipulator. The word cannot be helping your sales, but it could be hurting.” I never heard from Stanford, but sometime later my phone rang and it was Robert Cialdini’s office. It was one of his representatives who called and said, “I’m calling to personally thank you on behalf of Dr. Cialdini. You sent an email to Stanford and because of that, they’re changing the marketing of all of our materials.” That’s what I said. It was like, “This is so cool.” We had a very nice conversation. She said, “If your company ever needs a guest speaker, Dr. Cialdini travels the world and speaks about this.” I said, “I sit next to the woman who books our events and speakers. Let me transfer you.” Fate in the summer of 2004, he was in Columbus, Ohio on several occasions to address the insurance agents that represented our company. That is what kickstarts my relationship with Robert Cialdini and his company, INFLUENCE AT WORK.

You know what you did there that those people who are reading might not have noticed is you’re an excellent speaker. You’ve done a TEDx Talk and written this book. For those of you who might not have noticed some of the techniques that Brian did, when he tells the story, he tells the exposition, which is the key part, the who, what, where and when. We are so in your story. We know it’s at Stanford. We know it’s summer. We know it’s 2004 and that little detail is a skill that few people use and when I hear a guest do it, it’s not that often I can see why you’re one of twenty people in the world. I want to underline it and circle it to encourage people to start putting those exposition details in because it pulls us into the story. Thanks for doing that automatically. Let’s continue the journey. You’ve been selling insurance for years and then suddenly you say, “This is going to be a turning point in my career and I’m going to double down on this.”

When I finally went through the certification process with Dr. Cialdini, and that was in January of 2008, I understood that I could take this depth of knowledge and everything that comes along with the certification. Help our company with the leadership to become more influential to get things done because everybody has to work through people. I also saw that we could morph it into a sales training opportunity for the agents that represented us so that they could do a better job conveying the value of the insurance that they sold. The third thing that I saw was an opportunity for me in the future. I started my business on the side, Influence PEOPLE. I had these three prongs that were going at the same time. I continued to build out the business, but I loved what I did and the people that I worked with.

My boss was a great friend. I had no desire to jump ship quickly. Then in the summer of 2018, a lot of things started changing. I realized it’s time for me to make a move. I was so thankful to John that I had built this infrastructure to step into because I didn’t have to worry about building the website. There were so many other things to focus on when you dive in fully. I was thankful that I did that, but I was very strategic and starting to think about the future and what I wanted to ultimately do. I truly believe at its core, if people grasp these concepts that we teach, they will enjoy more success at the office. They will have more happiness at home because especially at home when those that you’re around more willingly say yes to you, there’s a lot less friction. That tends to make for a more peaceful and happy home.

It’s fascinating that you said that, Brian, because after I’ve worked with clients and companies on helping their sales teams become storytellers, as opposed to pushing out information. Turning boring case studies into case stories, they think, “This storytelling skill you’ve taught us is now helping us interact with our family better.” For example, a lot of parents when their kids were coming home from school in September like, “How was school?” They get one-word answers, fine and okay. I said, “Let’s rephrase it and say, “Tell me a story about the best part of your day.”

TSP Brian | Influence People

Influence People: Influence is a womb to tomb skill, that if people really grasped it, they would be able to have better conversations at work and at home.

Then the child can decide it’s going to school after school and if they jump into the story in the middle, they can say, “What time of day was this? Where were you?” I’d start teaching them some stuff. As the parent can share, “What was the best story about the best part of your day?” Now with people being at home more allows for conversation. This concept of learning to persuade as a fundamental skill is kissing cousins, if you will, to storytelling skills. I think the two go together and neither one is manipulative. How did you decide that there wasn’t a marriage between professional success and personal happiness?

I think that goes back to the mission statement that I wrote almost 30 years ago that I review almost daily. As I outlined, things about my faith, my family, my wellbeing, my career, I think that’s where I started to recognize I can help people that I work within a productive sense. I want them to be able to say, “I’m so thankful that you’re here because you’ve helped me accomplish this.” I also want it to impact them on a personal level. It became clear to me, the more I understood influence.

I saw that it is a 24/7, 365, womb to tomb skill that if people grasped it, they would be able to have better conversations at work and better conversations at home. The beauty of that with the people that I have coached, consulted with, and trained is they get it. Sometimes an insurance agent would apply more of what they were learning to their relationship at home. If they saw success, they started looking everywhere else they could apply it. Others might have gone the professional route, but when they saw the success, then they naturally leaned into the personal application.

Influence PEOPLE, the word ‘PEOPLE’ are capitalized because there’s an acronym and it stands for Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical. Let’s tap into some of these keywords so that people have the promise and a hint of how they can apply these. You talked about research being a big part of what this is all based on this. It isn’t a few people thinking, “I think this will work.” This is actual hardcore data that says, “We need to look at what it is that it’s doing.” You were a competitive bodybuilder at one time. I love the metaphor there of lifting weights and power and strength. Tell us that story of how you were trying these killer workouts and what kind of mind game that can do to you.

The analogy I used in the book was when we talk about this being powerful, it’s because its research-based. When I leaned back on my personal experiences, for example, working out quite often, you’re just looking at somebody else in the gym and maybe that guy is big and strong. “What are you doing?” That doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for you. It may. There are some core principles, but what I would tell people is if you want to get fit, you’re going to be much better off going to a trainer who has studied physiology and biology, and they know how things are going to work. They understand muscle recovery.

Just because something works for someone else does not mean it works for you. Click To Tweet

You then go to a nutritionist who understands what are the optimal foods and when do you want to eat those, and all of those things, instead of relying on the biggest guy in the gym. Too often, what we do is we rely on that guy or that lady who is the most successful. Certainly, they’ve done things to be successful, but it does not mean that what they’re doing will make us successful. What we can say about this research and social psychology is it applies across the world that these principles that Robert Cialdini synthesize, they impact all human beings to one degree or another. If you get good at bringing these principles into your communication, you will improve your ability to influence people.

I was a competitive swimmer in my youth and I was a lifeguard. I remember once I beat somebody who was always ahead of me. When you’re swimming, they measure your time to the thousands of a second when you touch the touchpad. I said, “How did I beat him?” They said, “You stayed focused on the wall and he turned to see if he was ahead of you and in that half a second of looking, it caused him to lose.” I think we’re saying something similar. Your way was, just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. My whole takeaway from that winning that swimming race was when I focus on my progress and don’t get distracted by what other people are doing, that’s when I win. I love the synergies of those two stories.

This concept of every day, ironically, you wrote this book before the pandemic. You talk about when was the last time you spent a whole day where you had no interactions with anybody. We’re on Zoom calls and text messages and things, but people are more isolated now than ever. I thought you might have some advice for people on the importance of connection, even if we’re not physically seeing people in the norm that we did in the past.

As social creatures, we all need people. Every one of us, even people who don’t maybe have strong relationships with others. We’re still dependent on other people. You see in my office books, people wrote those books, people own businesses where I went and bought those books. We are a society and we need people. I think when it comes to the isolation that we’ve had, we have to make some new conscious choices to do things that we hadn’t done in the past. One of them was Zoom.

As a personal example, I was dabbling with Zoom before the pandemic. Now I use it all the time. It’s going to be something I continue to use even when the pandemic passes. If I can’t be there to sit across the table from somebody and have a beer or have dinner or something like that, if I can at least look at them and do a Zoom cocktail hour, that satisfies a little bit. What we do miss is what happens when you have a human touch. I’m fortunate that my wife and daughter live with me and I get that human interaction. That is tough where you don’t realize how much you need it until you start missing it.

TSP Brian | Influence People

Influence People: As social creatures, we all need people. Every one of us. Even people who don’t have strong relationships with others are still dependent on other people.


We’re supposed to get like 8 to 10, 12 hugs a day. That’s a lot of hugging with the two people you’re living with because you normally can get it from coworkers. The next one is this concept of opportunities. When you get hired as a consultant or you’re speaking in front of audiences, you asked this question. The last time you bought a car, did you notice how suddenly you start seeing more of those cars? I think that’s fascinating and you’re going to be able to explain why that happens to us. For me, from a sales perspective, a lot of people have buyer’s remorse going, “Did I make the right decision on the sweater, on this car?” or whatever it is we bought. I think there’s some subconscious thing going on trying to reinforce that you did make the right decision. Let’s hear your insights as to how these opportunities can create a potential brand ambassador that they start seeing.

I think any time you raise awareness of something as human beings, we have a limited ability to focus on things. When something is raised to awareness, we tend to have an ability to spot it elsewhere. For example, you complimented me on my speaking. Thank you. I appreciate that. I spent a lot of time in Toastmasters. I’m a part of the National Speakers Association. It is a skill that I work on all the time. I am hypersensitive to somebody saying the word ‘um’ because when I was in Toastmasters, they counted them. For me, that now is a focal point. For a lot of other people, they would never think about it until you pointed out. If they ever said, “Did you hear how many times had the speaker said um?” All of a sudden, they feel like that’s every word that he or she is saying.

We have this ability to take something and bring it to the forefront and then we begin to notice it everywhere. What I try to do with influence is when I teach people what these principles are, I want people to start recognizing how advertisers and marketers are trying to get them to make decisions. How politicians are using them to try to get them to vote for him or her. Most importantly, I want them to start seeing the opportunities that are there for them to begin to implement them so that they have more people saying yes, more often.

Now, we come to the other P which is Persuade, which is a hot button. I’ve had clients ask me as a speaker, “Can you teach my sales team to be persuasive instead of pushy?” My go-to solution to that is stories. When you tell stories, you’re persuading and you’re pulling as opposed to pushing. You have this wonderful definition of persuasion of it has to do with art and science. Can you explain that?

When I ask people, “Give me your layman’s definition of persuasion.” What I hear most often is to convince somebody of something or to change somebody’s thinking. That’s a good first start, but it’s not enough. For example, John, if you and I talked about the dangers of texting and driving and you nodded your head and said, “I didn’t realize it was that big of a problem.” I’ve changed their thinking. If you get in your car and you pull your phone up, I haven’t changed your behavior and the problem persists. When I talk about persuasion, I always default to Aristotle’s definition, which was persuasion is the art of getting someone to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do if you didn’t ask. To get someone to do something that they’re not going to do if you don’t ask. If they’re already doing it, great, but if they’re not, it comes down to how you communicate with them. That’s where these principles come in.

When something is raised to awareness, we tend to have an ability to spot it elsewhere. Click To Tweet

Anytime you’re selling something, you’re asking people to change their behavior. Stop using this vendor or this process and do this a different way. There’s so much resistance to it. The next letter in PEOPLE is Lasting, which completely transitions well into what you’re saying about, it’s not enough just to change your behavior once. Stop texting once. As keynote speakers, we want our message to be lasting. What are some of the things that you do when a company will hire you to make sure that your message does last?

When you get someone to internalize something so that they believe it for themselves, that’s usually where lasting impact begins. As an example, when I transitioned from weightlifting to running, at first, I didn’t like running at all. Once I started running and I fell in love with it, my friend who is a fitness trainer never had to persuade me to run again. My self-identity had changed. I said, “I like this. I’m going to keep doing this.” If I can have a persuasive conversation with somebody that doesn’t just get them to take action but gets them to think through why they’re taking that action. They internalize it and they believe it. They are more likely to continue or persist in that behavior. That should always be our goal. It’s not enough for a parent to get their child to study tonight. You want them to understand the benefits of studying. It may not come through rational explanation, but maybe once that kid gets that first A and they feel good, they like how it feels to be smart. They start studying on their own because they see themselves as smart. That’s where you begin to have this lasting change on people.

I remember a dentist saying once, “You only have to brush the teeth you want to keep it.” You can’t just do it once or just a few. The tweet I’m thinking that would be good would be self-identity is the key to lasting, changing behavior.

I would say changing someone’s self-identity, getting them to change their self-identity would be a key to lasting change in behavior.

Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical

Ethical is the final E in PEOPLE. This is where we opened the story. We talk about how you made a lasting change and this concept between persuasion and manipulation, and things. What I love about what you write, Brian, is this concept of things are not good or bad. It’s Shakespearian. Most people think, “No.” We don’t realize that we’re the ones that assign semantics to things. Let’s talk about another wonderful quote from Aristotle that character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion. You have this connection here between an ethical persuasion and influence. Give us a little story around it or a further explanation.

People, unfortunately, conflate manipulation and persuasion or influence. For some, they don’t think about it much. They hear those terms and they put them all together but they are different. When you talk about influence and persuasion, you’re talking about the ethical side. When you talk about manipulation, you’re talking about the unethical side. When we talk about what it means to be an ethical persuader, there are three keys. First is you’ve got to be truthful. You tell the truth and you don’t hide the truth. You don’t hide something that could impact someone’s decision making.

Second, you use these principles that we teach that are naturally available in a situation. You don’t falsely claim scarcity or social proof or anything else if it’s not genuinely available. Third and most important would be, you are looking to create a situation that’s beneficial for the other person as well as for yourself. If you and I are engaged in conversation and what I am trying to persuade you of John, I know is in your best interest. You see that it’s in your best interest as well, then we can feel good about this transaction because I’ve been honest, I’ve only used psychology, natural to the situation. We’re going to both walk away better off.

Manipulative people will quite often say, “I don’t care about you. I just want to make the sale. I don’t care about my team. I just want them to do what I say.” What they will do then is they’ll pervert the truth or they’ll use false psychology because they say the only thing that matters is getting the sale or getting the team to do something. If you learn this stuff, you will realize you don’t have to resort to that because you’ll be so much more skilled at your ability to get those people to take the right actions.

To sum up, what you said, the key to being more persuasive is to be truthful, authentic, and make sure it’s a win-win for everyone. You’re an expert in insurance. I know you’ve spoken in front of a lot of insurance companies on helping insurance people be persuasive because you know better than anybody. That’s a product that a lot of people don’t differentiate themselves. It’s like insurance is insurance. I’m like, “What’s the difference?”

I’ll buy homeowner’s insurance from you versus somebody else’s, “I didn’t want to think about life insurance, I want to live forever.” There’s a lot of psychology, but you’ve also spoken to a lot of other companies beyond insurance companies. I wanted to get a sense of you have this amazing testimonial that the last time somebody heard, got such high marks after hearing a speaker was when they had Colin Powell as a keynote. Give people a sampling of in addition to buying your book, maybe they want to engage you as a speaker. What is your ideal audience?

Persuasion is the art of getting someone to do something that they wouldn't ordinarily do if you didn't ask. Click To Tweet

My ideal audience is any company, any group of individuals that recognize that their success and happiness depend on their ability to influence people in an ethical manner. They may specifically see it because for example, in insurance, settling a claim is a persuasive conversation. Just like making a sale is a persuasive conversation. If you are a physician, getting somebody to change their lifestyle so that they can live long after maybe a heart attack. That is a persuasive conversation.

If you’re a fitness trainer, getting people to do their at-home exercises as they are rehabbing is key to how you have that conversation. This may sound broad, but any person would benefit from what it is that I have to offer them. The ideal client I would say is somebody who says, “We want the ethical influence to be a pillar of how we do business that we ethically move people to action by using influence. We don’t use coercion. We don’t use our hierarchical authority. We ethically influence people.”

What I do then is I’ll go in and I’ll do deep-dive training with key people so that they understand this deeply and more front-line training so that everybody in the organization is speaking the same language. When somebody says, “John, we’re going to implement a new policy and we’re going to do it because it engages reciprocity.” You understand what that is. You’re like, “I remember that.” That can make a huge difference in how people respond.” For me, that would be my ideal client.

I love the example of a doctor having to persuade a patient to be compliant. Doctors don’t think of themselves as having to sell anything, but they’re certainly selling their advice. Brian, I can’t thank you enough for sharing the key concepts from your wonderful book Influence PEOPLE. We know what that stands for now, Powerful Everyday Opportunities. Any last thoughts or quotes that you want to leave us with?

You mentioned Shakespeare and I took my inspiration for this quote from Shakespeare. When I work with salespeople and as you know, the number one, the objection is always the price. People will reflexively say that your price is too high. Based on a concept that we call the contrast phenomenon, I came up with a quote and it’s this, “There’s nothing high or low, but comparing makes it so.” If somebody says he’s tall. He might be the tallest kid in your high school, but he might be the shortest guy in the basketball team. That car is expensive. It may be more than you paid for your last car. It might be a fraction of what your boss paid for his or her car. We are always comparing to other things. A fact is he’s 6’5″ or the car is $30,000. Those are facts. Whether that’s tall or that’s expensive, it’s always based on comparing to something else. That quote helps salespeople remember.

What a great quote and a great way to end the interview. Thanks again, Brian.

You’re welcome. Thank you for having me on, John.

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