What Con-Artists Can Teach Us About Effective Communication

Using influence and confidence to achieve effective communication

Disclaimer:  This blog in no way condones or endorses the criminal activities of con-artists.

Did you know that confident people are proven to be more influential, admired, and listened to in the workplace? No one knows this better than “confidence artists” who use their powers of perception and persuasion to exploit and swindle the unsuspecting. They are the villains we love to hate. Hollywood frequently uses these criminals as the inspiration for endearing characters we begrudgingly root for in movies or television shows.  Con-artists are clever, charismatic, calm in a crisis, and they seem to understand many things the rest of us don’t about human behavior. The question is: Can we take what con-artists have taught us about communication and influence to effect positive change in our organizations?


Under the Influence

“There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything.  Yes, just one way.  And that is by making the other person want to do it.”  Dale Carnegie

If the key to achieving the outcome we want hinges on getting people to want to listen to what we’re saying or to want to do what we’ve asked, why are some people more effective than others?  The majority of communication failures are the result of poor listening, not poor speaking.  The answer is Influence.

Most of us are often Passive Influencers.  Our communication is not targeted towards persuasion, instead we speak to be heard.  The listener may or may not understand what we’re trying to say and our influence over the situation is coincidental.  Con-artists, in contrast, are solely focused gaining the listeners trust to a degree that they achieve a Manipulator level of influence.

In between these two levels exists the ideal for effective communication: Active Influencers.  The main goal of Active Influence is to establish trust with the listener.  Con-artists and effective communicators understand that 90% of communication is preparing the listener to listen.  Communicating clearly and concisely is certainly a valuable skill—but only if you’ve developed a relationship of trust and influence with the listener.

So what is our communication lacking that con-artists have in abundance that makes people quick to trust and easily influenced?  It starts and ends with Confidence.


Confidence Is Not A Crime

A con-artist’s confidence is typically comprised of lies, but their self-trust is so supreme their authority is rarely questioned.  The listener believes the con-artist’s story as an irrefutable truth.  While a con-artist may only have a cursory understanding of any given topic, they consistently project a level of expertise that conveys authority and reliability which ultimately establishes their reputation as a “trusted” source.  Here are some of the tactics we can learn from con-artist to communicate confidently:

  • Be an Open and Available resource—People who stay heads-down at their desks all day or maintain a low profile within their work teams are rarely perceived as confident or influential.  Establishing an open door policy with coworkers, proactively approaching people and participating in group discussions are quick ways to change perception.
    • If we imagine ourselves as criminals, our intuition is to keep a low-profile—hunker down, cover our tracks, wear a disguise. But con-artists aren’t the ordinary criminal. They rarely wear disguises, they exhibit more and more outlandish and visible criminal behavior, they pose in roles of authority for which they are not remotely qualified. This is because they are motivated by the adrenaline rush of “getting away with it,” not by the money they make. It’s also because they understand that people are wired to trust authority figures, and they respond viscerally to displays of confidence.
  • Confidence is in the mind and the body—Body language is a powerful tool in conveying confidence.  “Power Posing” for two minutes increases your risk tolerance, increases our testosterone, and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone)—all traits that are associated with “alpha” or high-power individuals in both humans and the animal kingdom.  “Dressing the part” can also be an effective technique for building the appearance of confidence.
    • Even con-artists have “security blankets.”  Frank Abagnale, an infamous con-artist turned FBI consultant, never used an alias that didn’t begin with Frank. Using his own name helped him hold on to his identity and keep his aliases straight. He also always made sure to wear the appropriate uniform for each of his fake professions (airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, etc.) to help him look and feel the part.
  • Competence is power—No matter the professional industry, technology and modern research have shown that knowledge has an expiration date and competence is a moving target.  Maintaining current and relevant subject matter expertise is a differentiating factor in effective communication.
    • Even though they are considered “fakes,” con-artists are actually lifelong learners.  While his educations and legal credentials were forged, Frank Abagnale studied for and passed the BAR exam without cheating in preparation for posing as an attorney.
      • Tip: Do a “library audit”—look at the professional books and articles you keep at your desk or at home related to your field. Look at the copyright dates. How many books do you own that were printed after 2005? 2010?
      • Tip: Start a “professional improvement” fund–$20-$50  a month is usually enough to keep your certifications current, your professional memberships maintained, and pay for a couple training or executive coaching sessions a year. It’s an investment in your competence—and therefore, in your ability to lead and influence others.
      • Tip: Branch outside of your specialty. Con-artists learn a little bit about everything—and in some cases a lot about everything—so that they always have something to talk about with others. It helps them quickly build intimacy and connection. There are many free resources out there (example: Khan Academy) that will help broaden your horizons, ten minutes at a time.

Whether it is real or perceived, Confidence is an important part of the foundation of Effective Communication and Influence.

For more tips to get ahead in the workplace, check out more of our Insights & Tool.

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