“I don’t think fiction is an act of persuasion. Any intent like that corrupts the work. But a good book can absolutely change you. That’s why it’s a subversive form; that’s why despots and totalitarians come after writers. But your intent shouldn’t be to persuade. You can be passionate; you can even have a position. But the idea shouldn’t be that you’re trying to change someone’s mind. The novels that saved me posed questions in a brutal manner, but they didn’t give you the answers. I’d say that even about Orwell. He showed us the experiment of Animal Farm, but it’s not didactic. The same is true of Kafka. As a writer, you’re simply trying to share. It’s about empathy. The mind is not changed or persuaded by fiction; it’s literally altered. And that’s different from my trying to get you to switch cable providers. Now that’s persuasion.”
—Englander is an author. His novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth is out this month.
Amanda De Cadenet
“Learning how to be persuasive has been really crucial to my life both professionally and personally. I think if you ask anyone who knows me they would likely say that if Amanda wants to do something she really believes in, she will find a way. Persuasiveness is really just about getting your ideas across without being forceful. It’s a skill that can be learned and is useful for anyone who works in a team environment. But it requires practice—if I’m trying to simply force my will on someone, demanding that they take action based on my desires, they will likely oppose that. Persuasiveness takes finesse; it takes an understanding of human psychology. And intention is everything. I’ve never interviewed anyone where I set out to try to persuade them to reveal something. Instead, it’s about creating a space that allows someone to be authentic without judgment on my part.”
—De Cadenet is a photographer, the founder and CEO of Girlgaze and the author of It’s Messy, a collection of essays.
“Persuasion convinces through rhetoric and engagement. Manipulation has a more direct relationship to power—it contrives to dominate. The two call on different creative registers. Innate persuasiveness is something like charisma. When my work is successful, it enables people to see the world the way I see it. Although it’s not persuasion exactly, they see something for themselves, perhaps even in themselves. What I attempt to paint is oftentimes more essential than a feeling. The question is not to persuade but to involve. Maybe art can rescue or access something inside people that wouldn’t be accessible any other way. For that reason, they can immediately recognize something that talks to them and hadn’t been formulated any other way.
— Arruda is an artist. He has a solo exhibition opening this month at David Zwirner in London.
Susan N. Herman
“True persuasion identifies common ground so that people who may not have expected to agree with you discover that, on some level, they actually do. I gave a talk at the U.S. Army War College a few years ago about ACLU free speech principles. Afterwards, a lieutenant colonel approached me and said he had been determined to disagree with me but was surprised to find that things I’d said made sense to him. Nowadays, there’s so much talk about our unbridgeable political divisions—trying to persuade a Democrat to become a Republican or vice versa feels like trying to persuade a tiger to become a vegetarian—but it’s dangerous for us to continue retreating into our echo chambers, just to avoid disagreement. I believe that Americans still share many fundamental values, and we need to find ways to listen to each other to persuade ourselves that we can bridge our differences.”
—Herman is president of the American Civil Liberties Union and Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.
“The goal of advertising is persuasion and education. Advertisers and brands are primarily asking consumers to give up some of their time, whether it’s for a 60-second spot, an online journey or a sponsored event. So it has to be worthwhile and earned. It has to be done with respect. Why should a consumer care about this messaging, be it a phone plan or a pair of sneakers? Persuasion is something that resonates beyond commerce; it functions in all our lives. Everyone is basically an advertiser. If you have an Instagram account, you’re essentially running a brand campaign every single day. You’re trying to persuade the world that this is the life you lead; these are the ideas you believe in. It’s an interesting era. The types of things that prove persuasive change over time, but I think sincerity is the most persuasive quality of all.”
—Droga is founder and creative chairman of the advertising agency Droga5.
“Honestly, I don’t like the word persuasion. It’s quite aggressive. I think seduction and suggestion are better words. Politicians have the gift of persuasion. As a stylist I never want to push someone to do something, because they may regret it in the end. When I worked with Kim Kardashian on the cover of CR Fashion Book, with Karl Lagerfeld and Riccardo Tisci, she was not heavily supported by the fashion world. We wanted her with no hairstyling and makeup, which was very different for her. The result was a totally new vision of her—although, of course, it’s easy to persuade people when you’re working with Karl and Riccardo! And a sense of humor always helps. But I think we have to accept that these days not everyone can be persuaded. The work I did 20 years ago would be very difficult to do today.”
—Roitfeld is a stylist and the founder and editor in chief of CR Fashion Book. Issue 11 is out this month.
I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That's like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn't it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?
I speak from experience because I majored in entrepreneurship at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. Technically, my major was economics. But the unsung advantage of attending a small college is that you can mold your experience any way you want.
There was a small business on our campus called The Coffee House. It served beer and snacks, and featured live entertainment. It was managed by students, and it was a money-losing mess, subsidized by the college. I thought I could make a difference, so I applied for an opening as the so-called Minister of Finance. I landed the job, thanks to my impressive interviewing skills, my can-do attitude and the fact that everyone else in the solar system had more interesting plans.
The drinking age in those days was 18, and the entire compensation package for the managers of The Coffee House was free beer. That goes a long way toward explaining why the accounting system consisted of seven students trying to remember where all the money went. I thought we could do better. So I proposed to my accounting professor that for three course credits I would build and operate a proper accounting system for the business. And so I did. It was a great experience. Meanwhile, some of my peers were taking courses in art history so they'd be prepared to remember what art looked like just in case anyone asked.
One day the managers of The Coffee House had a meeting to discuss two topics. First, our Minister of Employment was recommending that we fire a bartender, who happened to be one of my best friends. Second, we needed to choose a leader for our group. On the first question, there was a general consensus that my friend lacked both the will and the potential to master the bartending arts. I reluctantly voted with the majority to fire him.
But when it came to discussing who should be our new leader, I pointed out that my friend—the soon-to-be-fired bartender—was tall, good-looking and so gifted at b.s. that he'd be the perfect leader. By the end of the meeting I had persuaded the group to fire the worst bartender that any of us had ever seen…and ask him if he would consider being our leader. My friend nailed the interview and became our Commissioner. He went on to do a terrific job. That was the year I learned everything I know about management.
At about the same time, this same friend, along with my roommate and me, hatched a plan to become the student managers of our dormitory and to get paid to do it. The idea involved replacing all of the professional staff, including the resident assistant, security guard and even the cleaning crew, with students who would be paid to do the work. We imagined forming a dorm government to manage elections for various jobs, set out penalties for misbehavior and generally take care of business. And we imagined that the three of us, being the visionaries for this scheme, would run the show.
We pitched our entrepreneurial idea to the dean and his staff. To our surprise, the dean said that if we could get a majority of next year's dorm residents to agree to our scheme, the college would back it.
It was a high hurdle, but a loophole made it easier to clear. We only needed a majority of students who said they planned to live in the dorm next year. And we had plenty of friends who were happy to plan just about anything so long as they could later change their minds. That's the year I learned that if there's a loophole, someone's going to drive a truck through it, and the people in the truck will get paid better than the people under it.
The dean required that our first order of business in the fall would be creating a dorm constitution and getting it ratified. That sounded like a nightmare to organize. To save time, I wrote the constitution over the summer and didn't mention it when classes resumed. We held a constitutional convention to collect everyone's input, and I listened to two hours of diverse opinions. At the end of the meeting I volunteered to take on the daunting task of crafting a document that reflected all of the varied and sometimes conflicting opinions that had been aired. I waited a week, made copies of the document that I had written over the summer, presented it to the dorm as their own ideas and watched it get approved in a landslide vote. That was the year I learned everything I know about getting buy-in.
For the next two years my friends and I each had a private room at no cost, a base salary and the experience of managing the dorm. On some nights I also got paid to do overnight security, while also getting paid to clean the laundry room. At the end of my security shift I would go to The Coffee House and balance the books.
My college days were full of entrepreneurial stories of this sort. When my friends and I couldn't get the gym to give us space for our informal games of indoor soccer, we considered our options. The gym's rule was that only organized groups could reserve time. A few days later we took another run at it, but this time we were an organized soccer club, and I was the president. My executive duties included filling out a form to register the club and remembering to bring the ball.
By the time I graduated, I had mastered the strange art of transforming nothing into something. Every good thing that has happened to me as an adult can be traced back to that training. Several years later, I finished my MBA at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. That was the fine-tuning I needed to see the world through an entrepreneur's eyes.
If you're having a hard time imagining what an education in entrepreneurship should include, allow me to prime the pump with some lessons I've learned along the way.
Combine Skills. The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It's unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it's easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The "Dilbert" comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That's how value is created.
Fail Forward. If you're taking risks, and you probably should, you can find yourself failing 90% of the time. The trick is to get paid while you're doing the failing and to use the experience to gain skills that will be useful later. I failed at my first career in banking. I failed at my second career with the phone company. But you'd be surprised at how many of the skills I learned in those careers can be applied to almost any field, including cartooning. Students should be taught that failure is a process, not an obstacle.
Find the Action. In my senior year of college I asked my adviser how I should pursue my goal of being a banker. He told me to figure out where the most innovation in banking was happening and to move there. And so I did. Banking didn't work out for me, but the advice still holds: Move to where the action is. Distance is your enemy.
Attract Luck. You can't manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn't work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It's not obvious to a teenager.
Conquer Fear. I took classes in public speaking in college and a few more during my corporate days. That training was marginally useful for learning how to mask nervousness in public. Then I took the Dale Carnegie course. It was life-changing. The Dale Carnegie method ignores speaking technique entirely and trains you instead to enjoy the experience of speaking to a crowd. Once you become relaxed in front of people, technique comes automatically. Over the years, I've given speeches to hundreds of audiences and enjoyed every minute on stage. But this isn't a plug for Dale Carnegie. The point is that people can be trained to replace fear and shyness with enthusiasm. Every entrepreneur can use that skill.
Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.
Learn Persuasion. Students of entrepreneurship should learn the art of persuasion in all its forms, including psychology, sales, marketing, negotiating, statistics and even design. Usually those skills are sprinkled across several disciplines. For entrepreneurs, it makes sense to teach them as a package.
That's my starter list for the sort of classes that would serve B students well. The list is not meant to be complete. Obviously an entrepreneur would benefit from classes in finance, management and more.
Remember, children are our future, and the majority of them are B students. If that doesn't scare you, it probably should.
—Mr. Adams is the creator of "Dilbert."