Jason Harris: ...that I needed to write my own story and figure out how to get there
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me!
Laura: I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: Could you use a new approach to your life and to your work? Would you like to be better able to get your point across to others? Is there a way that you could be more inspirational to others?
Jan: If you answered yes to any of those questions, you'll want to hear what our guest, Jason Harris, has to say. Jason is the co-founder and CEO of Mekanism, an award-winning creative advertising agency. He's also the author of the bestselling book, The Soulful Art of Persuasion: The 11 Habits That Will Make Anyone a Master Influencer. Jason, thank you so much for joining us.
Jason: Really psyched to be here. It's going to be a fun conversation.
Jan: It is, it is. I know your goal is to make people more authentically persuasive, why aren't most of us that way?
Jason: I think a lot of us are that way, or we start off that way. I think over time, to get ahead or to sell, we're sort of trained to not necessarily be that way. To me, it's about going back to the core and following your beliefs and playing the long game. One reason why I wrote this book is, I'm a big business book reader, I'm an avid reader. I didn't find, when it comes to persuasion, aka sales, aka business, I didn't see a lot of books that were talking about being inspirational, or being soulful, or giving back, or being generous, or empathetic. They were much more about how to leverage your power, or to mirror and match the person you're selling to. It was almost like hacks, like tips and tricks and hacks. To me, I felt there was a whitespace in the market and a story that I wanted to tell about how you can be authentically persuasive to be successful. That's really why I wrote the book.
Laura: You don't really see a lot of business books that stress empathy, but that's one of your main principles. How does that look in the work world?
Jason: Empathy, to me, is about being a natural, curious person about others and it's listening more than you judge. One principle I believe in is making it about the other person and seeking out collaboration, joining forces with people from diverse backgrounds. I run an advertising agency, I'm the CEO of an advertising agency. Making sure everyone feels like the credits don't matter, who came up with the idea isn't the important thing, it's that we did it together. It can be the client, it can be with the agency, people at the agency, we don't really believe in credits for our work because it's all about the collective.
You want to allow people to feel like a good idea can come from anywhere, that people can speak up and say their opinion and there isn't such a necessary hierarchy of leadership and decisive business calls, it's done more in a collective way. When I say that, it might feel more Kumbaya than it actually is. But it's about allowing people to have a space where they feel like they're safe, their opinions matter, and they can be trusted. Not that you follow their opinions, or someone has to make a call at the end of the day, and that's going to be someone at the top, but that people are heard. That's really important.
The other big thing for empathy in your personal life and in business life, is to look at people through trying to seek out commonalities and not differences and trying to find the common ground that we all deal with in this human experience. A stat I always throw out there is that 99.9%, all of us, have the same DNA and it's that .1% in each of us that makes us different. But if you look at that common DNA, you'll find that we're a lot more alike than we think we are. We think we're so different. We just came off a contested election. You see that divisiveness and it seems like you're on one side of the world and the other half is on the other side. But when it really comes down to it, we're all after the same things. We're all after opportunity, feeling secure, having family and friends, having a good life. Those are all commonalities. You have to start, in work and in personal life, with that level set, not feeling like people are against you or we're all so different.
Jan: How do you think we're seeing soulful persuasion right now in the advertising that has sprung up around us in the midst of the pandemic?
Jason: In terms of the wave of advertising that was supporting health care workers, that type of thing?
Jan: Right, right. It just seems to me like we're seeing a whole lot more of what you're talking about, of this soulful persuasion in advertising right now.
Laura: It seems more genuine.
Jason: Yeah, that's actually true. There's a business reason behind it. There's study after study that shows that consumers expect brands to stand for something. In order for a consumer, especially younger consumers, millennials, in order for them to support a brand and be brand loyal, they need to see the brand stepping up and making the world a better place. That's really shifted a lot of how brands have behaved, and brands know that. They're not necessarily doing it because they feel like it's the thing they should do, they're doing it because it's an imperative.
They realize if they want to talk to a younger consumer base, they have to be inspirational and stand for more than shareholder value, or moving units and selling things, they have to be a higher level above that. You saw this trend in advertising, where it was all about supporting health care workers, sometimes brands would talk about how they're supporting their employees. This was really during the pandemic, the wave of that idea of what I talked about, being purposeful and standing for more than just what you're selling, really come alive across the board with all brands.
Laura: This obviously meant for a huge change in advertising and everything had to be related to the pandemic. How did your teams refocus their energies into coming up with ideas related to the pandemic and making those ads that would give us chills when they were working remotely and couldn't collaborate in person? I imagine that would be so different for them, and just a big change.
Jason: Yeah, that was really, really a hard thing to do and a hard way to work. For my business, and for a lot of businesses out there, it's about those happenstance things that happen in the hallways or sitting around a table and brainstorming to come up with ideas, it's that kinetic crash of thoughts that land you something really powerful. Now, if you have an idea last minute and you want to tell the team about it, you have to schedule a Zoom, look at everyone's calendar, you can't get everyone on video, it's a much more arduous way of doing it than it was before.
But what we did at the beginning of the pandemic was write a playbook that talked about how brands can leverage this moment and the things that they should and shouldn't do. That white paper really helped create a playbook for everyone in the company that we could follow. It was basically a guiding principle, and that really helped. We always believe when you’re talking about brand in any way, when you talk about Nobody Told Me! brand, you guys are building a brand together, you each have your personal brands. You should always know what you stand for and be really consistent with what you're talking about and what your purpose is, and then go from there. What's the core thing you believe and how can you apply the thing you believe to the thing you're going through? How can you apply what you guys believe in in your brand to this pandemic? If those things line up, then you've got something. If you're just jumping from important thing that's on everyone's mind and pop culture, from Black Lives Matter to gun control to gender equality. If you're just jumping around all these things because that's what people are talking about, that's not very authentic. It's an inauthentic way of jumping on the bandwagon of pop culture. Really, it should be endemic to your brand and go back to your core values. Does it make sense?
Jan: Yeah, totally. I'm wondering, along those lines, how important are the words and the phrases that we use with others, in terms of persuading them, as compared with the intent behind them?
Jason: That's a really great point. I talk a lot about, in the book, how important language is and the idea of using powerful words versus powerless words and how it can throw a different meaning. I'm going pull some up, actually, while we're talking about it. This is from the book and I'm glad that you brought this up because it's really good opportunity to showcase how you can speak with power. When we talk about words that are powerful or powerless, we talk about positive persuasion versus negative persuasion as demonstrated.
Here's three examples. If you're talking about a product, it's saying this product will give you more energy versus saying this product will make you less tired. That's coming off the idea that we're solving, you're tired and that's an issue, versus the positive side of what it will give you. If you talk about donating, if you don't donate to this cause, these dogs will die or people will die. That's one approach. A more positive way is twisting it to say, your donation can save lives. If you're talking about smoking, smoking takes years off your life, versus the positive, which is, if you quit now, you'll live a much longer life.
When you're talking about persuading, or talking about the workplace, or talking about branding, the way you twist the same message can have a very different effect on the person you're talking to. I always gear towards positive persuasion versus negative persuasion, because I always find that to be much more effective. You can see that starkly in, whatever your political preferences are, but in the Biden brand versus the Trump brand. One plays off of anxiety and fear and one plays off of a much more hopeful, positive type of persuasion. They're very stark contrasted. I think the country now is leaning towards positive persuasion versus negative persuasion.
Laura: How many times does the typical consumer have to hear an ad or see something before they actually make a move?
Jason: That's a good question. That's been studied in a lot of different studies based on what medium you're talking about, what posts you're talking about. Is it digital? Is it social? Is it outdoor? Is it reading it from earn media from press? But typically, it takes three to four before a consumer will make up their decision if they're going to take an action or not. They'll be open-minded and that's typically the amount of impressions of frequency that it takes.
Laura: Say they're watching it on TV, do they typically even take notice the first time?
Jason: In the subconscious. It'll go in the back of their mind, they'll take it in but they'll never remember it. Then the second time, it'll feel a little bit more familiar. By the third time, they're understanding it and starting to make the decision process. And then, sometimes the third time, but usually by the fourth time, they have a definitive answer of how they're doing it. That is why, the thing that you just brought up, I know we're drifting into branding now, what you just brought up is so important. In order to do that, when you have to send the message out to the consumer multiple times for them to make a decision, you have to have a message that's simple and understandable and it has to be really consistent.
If you're reaching the consumer four times but you keep tweaking your message, that's like resetting the dial every time you do that. Consistency of message is really important and then the message has to really be simple. You have to be able to, literally, have that elevator pitch no matter what medium and have people really understand. Unless you're a company like Geico, where you're going to spend $300 million on the airwaves, and you can't get away from a Geico ad.
Jan: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Jason: Then it doesn't matter because you can kind of make a joke and just say, "Geico" at the end because of the repetitiveness of it.
Jan: How can the lessons regarding soulful persuasion in the advertising business translate to our personal lives, our personal selves, our personal brands?
Jason: It's interesting. I write a lot in the book about how, and you guys brought this up at the beginning, brands being more inspirational and having a purpose. That's also a way that brands are becoming more human. They're not just selling something; they're trying to humanize their brand and show that the brand has a heart, so brands are becoming more human.
When we talk about personal branding, I find that it's really important for personal brands that you're developing, you guys are working on your thing on social media. It's really important for simple and consistent, just like you would for a brand, but that you're human. You're not a cold brand that doesn't have a point of view or emotions, but that you are an honest brand. You can talk about your ups and downs, but you have that authentic, unique voice.
Being yourself, for a brand or personal brand, is sort of everything. That's the basement layer of soulful persuasion is being yourself, being an original, not being afraid of your personal idiosyncrasies or what makes you unique, or your values. The same is for a brand. A brand should have a fun voice, they should be personable. They shouldn't be stoic and so monolith, they need to be very unique and have a voice that allows people to open up and be themselves when you're yourself. That's the same for personal brand as well.
Laura: You talk about how important it is to try and be inspirational to others. I'm wondering if that was one of the ideas that you had when you started Mekanism was, "Hey, I'm going to be approachable and I'm going to try and be a role model for these employees.” Maybe if that's what led to such success with the agency?
Jason: Yeah, that's a great point, I don't think it was as calculated as that. I had worked, like your sister, I'd worked at a lot of different agencies. I always knew I wanted to start my own with some other people. I took in what I liked about the places I worked and the culture, and then threw away the things that I didn't like. At the beginning, we wrote down our values and beliefs, that haven't really changed 15 years later, they haven't changed. We stood by those values in order to live those values every day. We don't always get it right, but we're always trying to have people feel like when they come to work, they're in a supportive environment among their friends, and not a cutthroat, knife fight ad agency.
Jan: One of the points you make in the book that I found fascinating, you say, "It's impossible to anticipate what parts of your identity other people might be drawn to." Why is it important to keep that in mind?
Jason: We often will try to hide the things that make us, us until we really feel like we know someone. My argument is, being yourself is also an act of being a generous person. You're leaning into the things that you like, your role models, what attracts you, even if it's something that you might feel is a little out there, a little awkward, or you might be embarrassed about. It's allowing yourself to show some psychic skin and be yourself that allows people to be inspired and drawn toward you because you're not hiding anything. You're not trying to project only the best version of yourself.
Laura: Right. You talk about how important it is to be generous with our time. How do you do that as a CEO when you have so many obligations? It seems like so many founder CEOs are just looking at the clock trying to wait until the next meeting and have a little time for themselves?
Jason: It's a great question. There's some simple things that you can do. I'll have two one-on-ones with every employee that gets scheduled and that takes about a half hour a day. Once a day for a half-hour, I'm meeting with an employee at any level. That allows me to get a pulse on the company, it allows me to really understand that person on a deeper level. That's one thing I employ.
Another thing is, we do all company meetings where people can ask any question they want, and we have to answer that question, that can be anonymous or not. That allows for people to feel this transparency from the company. Those are just some ways that we incorporate trying to be in touch with as many employees as we can. But it's like you point out, it's really, really hard. It's something you have to be really mindful of in order for it to be effective.
Jan: What do you think the most important qualities are that we can cultivate to get others to be on our side, to hear our side of a story.
Jason: Beyond this idea of originality and being yourself, storytelling is really important. By the way, a lot of these principles that I talk about in the book are, there's 11 Habits covered in the book. I call them Habits because anything can be practiced and learned over time. You might be a generous person by nature, but maybe not an empathetic person. Generous is something that you just were born with and you feel that way, but you don't really understand how to collaborate or see commonalities, that's something that you can learn.
For me, I was always what I would call "Original and Myself." But I was never a generous person, I was probably more of a selfish person, that's something that I had to learn. But one thing that I think everyone needs to learn is this idea of being a great storyteller. If you want to get your point of view to an audience, or to someone in your life, you need to be able to transport them emotionally. You need to be able to tell a story to get your point across to make them feel something. That is way more important than stats, data, and logic. Storytelling always trumps the logical argument. That's one thing I would definitely ask everyone to try to really practice that muscle of learning to be a great storyteller. I have some techniques in the book about that.
Laura: Yeah, talk to us a little bit about those techniques. It seems like that would be a strategy that people could use to try and stand out in an interview in a time when so many people have lost their jobs and they need to find some sort of way to be unique amongst so many other qualified applicants.
Jason: Yes, that's great. One thing you can do is, when you think about storytelling, there's stories that are unique to you, your life events that you've gone through. You can talk about those and things that have shaped who you are. That's one part of storytelling. Another part is books, movies, and music that have always spoken to you and really writing down why they matter to you and what's behind what the message is. You can talk about those stories as well. Movies are a good one because if they're popular, or books, people will be familiar with the story. You can tell that story and put your own spin on what it meant to you. People also love stories when they're familiar. They love when they can relate to them, or they remember them, or they know what you're talking about.
One technique I do with storytelling is, I'll write down the story I want to tell, literally on a piece of paper, then I'll practice rehearsing how I'm going to tell that story. Then I kind of get it out of my head because I've somewhat memorized it and I'll memorize the first and last sentence of that story so I have those queued up in my head. Then I'll be able to call from those stories when I feel like the time's right or I'm trying to make a point. That's some techniques that take a little bit of work, but that really, really pay off.
Jan: Who inspires you? Who can we look to and say, "This is a great person as far as soulful persuasion is concerned.”
Jason: For me, the number one person that was a role model to me was David Bowie. Growing up, David Bowie to me, was the iconic, sort of the far end extreme of being original and being himself. He changed genders, he wasn't a man or woman, he messed with musical styles, he created characters. But they were always coming from an idea or a thought that he had and he didn't really care what other people thought about those ideas that he had. He really leaned into, sort of, flying his freak flag and doing his own thing, and that's how he became successful.
When he originally started his career, the label that signed him wanted him to be a folk singer, like Bob Dylan. He put out two albums of him making folk music that no one bought, then he quit the label and went out, did his own thing, then came back, and he's the David Bowie that we all remember. He became one of the most successful artists of the modern era because he did it the way he wanted to do it. When he tried to do it the way others wanted him to do it, he wasn't successful.
Laura: Wow, I love that. That's not who I would have thought you would have picked. I would have thought it would have been somebody in the industry. I think that's somebody that so many people of all generations can relate to.
Jason, we always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" What did nobody tell you about advertising, or success, character building, wherever you want to take it, that you wish they had before the start of your career that would have helped you avoid some missteps along the way?
Jason: Nobody told me how important it is to know where you're going. When I say, "Know where you're going," and we talked a lot about storytelling, really thinking about you can take life in two ways. You can follow what life serves you up and you go that way. Or you can craft your story, know where you want your story to end up, what you're striving for, what your goals are, and then work backwards. That simple idea, or that simple notion, I wish somebody had told me that because I started so much of my life not knowing where I was going to end up and going with the flow, if you will. I'm happy where I did end up eventually. But at some point, I realized I need to write my own story, then figure out how to get there. That's something I wish I'd known early on.
Jan: Wow. I love that, I love that. Jason, how can people connect with you on social media and the internet?
Jason: They can go to thesoulfulart.com, which is my website. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram, @jason_harris.
Laura: It's been awesome to talk with you. I think that these strategies are different than what a lot of our guests have had, but so useful, especially right now. Thank you so much for sharing those with us.
Jason: Thank you so much for having me, it was a real blast.
Jan: Our thanks to Jason Harris whose bestselling book is, The Soulful Art of Persuasion: The 11 Habits That Will Make Anyone a Master Influencer. Again, you can learn more about him and it at thesoulfulart.com. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.