There is one excellent reason, as Dorothy Sayers might say, why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about influence. For if we are not all professional influencers, we have all, at some time or another, been influenced.
I have certainly been more influenced than influential. But over the years I have also become something of a student of influence, seeking to learn what I can about how to become more effective at being effectual.
Although, I can't claim to have aquired any expertise, I do think there are a few lessons I've learned that are worth sharing. Whether the lessons have any merit is for others to decide, though I believe they are most applicable to a narrow demographic of influence-seekers: Christians who have a message they want to communicate but limited opportunities to do so. Preachers, teachers, and journalists, therefore, aren’t the intended audience (though they are welcome to keep reading). It is for the others, my fellow aspiring influencers, that I share the following lessons:
Lesson #1: Know your “great objects”—When the British politician William Wilberforce sensed a call from God, he wrote in a journal entry that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values].” These became the twin lodestars that guided his ambitions as an influencer.
Wilberforce inspired me to write out my own version: The restoration of the family as the basic unit of society and the recognition of the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human family. Unless you can clarify to yourself what you want to affect, you can't make it clear to anyone else.
What are your great objects, the key themes that God has set before you?
Lesson #2: Media coverage is not the same as influence—I’ve said and written things that have been seen and heard by millions of people.
My writing has been cited in several dozen newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Associated Press, The Guardian (UK), The Trouw (The Netherlands), WORLD magazine, The American Conservative, Christianity Today, The Week, The Weekly Standard, et al. The Washington Post even wrote a 1000-word profile on my views on bioethics.
I’ve also conducted interviews with dozens of radio programs, including BBC World Service, BBC Five Live, the Hugh Hewitt Show, and Morning in America with Bill Bennett. NPR’s All Things Considered let me give a radio essay on embryonic stem cell research.
Yet if I were to assess the level of influence I gained from appearing on those venues I would rank it from negligible to non-existent. When the readers and listeners folded the newspaper, closed the magazine, and turned off the radio they completely forgot about my message.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, nor do I intend to dismiss this media coverage as completely irrelevant. I appreciate every column inch and second of airtime that I’ve been given. But I don’t count it toward my efforts at influence anymore than I count the spare change in my couch toward my net worth. Regularity and rapport—the two keys to influencing hearts and minds—cannot be squeezed into an occasional sound bite.
Lesson #3: Keep your pride in check—Over the past week, as I’ve been contemplating these lessons, I considered not including the preceding paragraphs for fear that I might be accused of “humblebragging”—a type of bragging that masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. It was only after I decided not to include them that I realized where my true temptation to pride lay: I wasn’t hoping that people would be impressed by my list of media appearances (they never are, nor should they be) but I was extremely concerned that by mentioning them someone might think that I was insufficiently humble.
Aspiring influencers must be aware of where they are tempted to pride and work to keep it in check. You aren’t likely to be completely successful—influence-seekers are rarely canonized—but it will help prevent you from getting in the way of your message.
Lesson #4: If you want to have a bigger influence, start by thinking smaller—So you’re not a teacher, a pastor, or a professional writer. You don’t have a forum to spread the message of your great objects. How do you get started? Here’s what you do: (1) start a blog, (2) write at least five days a week, (3) build an audience of 150 readers.
As Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book The Tipping Point, the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship is about 150. In blogging terms, this means that when your readership grows, your ability to have a truly influential connection with them decreases significantly. This is not to say that you should attempt to limit your readership to 150 readers. But if you want to maximize your personal influence, focus on establishing strong bonds and deep interaction with a core group.
Consider what might happen if each of these 150 readers read and thought about what you wrote on your blog for five minutes every day. Five minutes may seem insignificant, but it can have an exponential effect. With only five minutes every day, five days a week, you will have the reader’s attention for almost an entire day—22 hours—every year. That’s an astounding opportunity for influence.
The question then becomes how you’ll use this opportunity. Your audience is giving you two of their most precious possessions—their time and their attention. What are you doing with this gift?
Some—even perhaps most—of your time should be spent building rapport with your audience. If all you ever write about is related to your great objects, it will be a challenge to hold their attention. But if you rarely—or never—mention your core message, then you have squandered your opportunity. Find the right balance for your message and your audience.
Lesson #5: Think long-term—Let’s assume that you’ve decided to take these lessons to heart. You’ve written down your great objects, stopped obsessing about media coverage, started obsessing about keeping your pride in check, and launched a blog. There’s one last thing you need to do before you get started: Locate a multi-year calendar and find a date exactly ten years from now. Note that this is the time when (if you work consistently) you should expect (though nothing is guaranteed) to start becoming influential. You will need the time to hone your communication skills, build your network, establish your reputation, and develop yourself to be an instrument of influence for God’s purposes. (I began this process on October 23, 2003, so I hope to be a novice influencer by November 2013.)
If you think that is too long to wait to start having an influence, then go back to Lesson #3. Ask yourself if what you desire is to promote yourself or your great objects. If it’s the latter, you can be patient. Wilberforce campaigned for twenty-six years before his efforts to abolish the slave trade were successful.
If you are ready to work hard and commit to the task for as many decades as it takes, then stop aspiring, start working, and pray ceaselessly that God blesses your efforts to be influential.
Lesson #6: Ultimately, it’s not about you or your message — Take up the great objects that God Almighty has set before you. Pray and labor with all your might. But in your strivings never forget that the greatest object is not to change the world but to be faithful to the one who created it.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning
Joe Carter, Unsolicited Advice to a Young Conservative
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