You have all the elements needed for success: education, hands-on experience, the right CV and supporting materials. So why do you find yourself coming out of interviews not only without a job, but without a clue as to why?
The ingredient that seems to be missing in situations like this is persuasion. Scientists often have a hard time being persuasive. You live in a world where your science does the persuading, where you don’t need to be convincing because it is the science that leads to the conclusion—not your persuasion abilities.
But just how does that work in the job search arena? Not too well! In fact, the worst piece of advice you may have ever received was when your adviser told you that “good science will sell itself.” That’s simply not the case. Even if your science is fantastic, you need to be able to convince and persuade, not only at job transition time but for the rest of your career. Luckily, being persuasive is a skill that can be learned—and it’s not as ugly as it sounds.
Becoming more persuasive
When you think of persuasion, you probably think of some fast-talking car salesman you dealt with—or that reagents representative who visits your lab, throws a few freebies at you, and then won’t let up until you buy something or physically push them out the door. But that’s not the persuasion route I’m talking about. Hiring managers and potential collaborators and colleagues aren’t won over by tactics and gimmicks. In fact, they probably feel like you do about the shenanigans that salespeople go through in order to “convince.”
True persuasion is not about making a one-time sale. You don’t want to convince a manager to hire you and then have that person regret it 3 days into your new job. True persuasion is about making a professional case for yourself, which your later actions can back up on a daily basis. True persuasion creates friends, allies, and collaborators who are with you for a long time, and it's a skill you need to start working on today.
The most logical place to show your persuasive abilities will be in an interview, but I want to do more than give you another column of interview advice. Persuasion is also critically important in building alliances, in networking, and in the early stage of information gathering. In short, persuasion is important in any instance where you need to gain the buy-in of someone else to help you with your goals.
There are several persuasion stumbling blocks for the scientist who needs to be convincing but has a hard time doing so. Here are three of them, as well as some suggestions for overcoming them so that you can get to work on raising your persuasion game to the next level.
Stumbling block No. 1: Downplaying your individual value
When I ask a scientist to “tell me about yourself,” I get either the “we” or the “I” response. Most of the time, the response sounds like, “We do this in our laboratory,” or “We’ve published on this and on that.” I appreciate that you want to share credit with your colleagues and that science is often a true team effort, but these “we” answers won’t convince me to hire or collaborate with you.
I’d prefer to hear what you have done, not what the “Smith Lab” has done. Taking pride in your work and accomplishments isn’t bragging—it’s communicating to the person you’re talking to that you’ll be able to add meaningful contributions to whatever they’re working on. If you find that you rely exclusively on the “we” response, it’s time to take a step back, do a skills inventory, and develop some comfort with self-promotion. Mixing “I” and “we” is fine, but remember that the “I” is what seals the deal.
Stumbling block No. 2: Fear
Do you have an inherent fear of approaching people and working on getting into their good graces? So do I. Luckily, that is not what being persuasive is all about. Remember, it’s about communicating to others that you have valuable skills and insight that can help both parties achieve common goals.
Even so, fear of saying the wrong thing or making a bad impression can stand in the way of effective—and persuasive—interpersonal communication. How can you get past this? There’s only one solution: You just have to do it over and over again.
That may sound like a tall order, but there’s a good chance that you’ve already done it for another common fear: public speaking. You may have been terrified of talking in front of a crowd when you got started as a scientist, but my guess is that you’ve overcome this, simply because you had to. You thrust yourself into the public speaking arena, armed with your love of science and, perhaps, a lot of prodding by your adviser. After you did it long enough, you gained enough comfort to go out and present at national meetings, job interviews, and the like. You may still get nervous, but you get through it—and sometimes even come out the other side having realized that you enjoyed it. With some practice, the same thing will happen with persuasion.
Stumbling block No. 3: Lack of focus
It’s very hard to be persuasive if you have no concept of where you want to be or what path you are following to get there. Do you remember, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which road to take? He responded that, since she had no idea where she was going, any road would take her there.
People with a plan stand out from the pack. When you talk to a person who is goal-centric about what they can offer you, they’ll find a way to tie their plan into yours. They won’t push their plan on you; they’ll find out enough about what you need that they can show you how they’ll help you reach your goal (while at the same time, it no doubt accomplishes theirs). So, one key to becoming more persuasive is to continually go back to your plan and check that everything you do leads you in that direction. Then you’ll be in good shape to tie your plan into others’ plans and talk to them about how you can achieve mutually beneficial goals.
Not only for extroverts
It may seem that extroverts have a better chance of overcoming these stumbling blocks and achieving persuasion success. But, according to author Kurt Mortensen in Persuasion IQ: The 10 Skills You Need to Get Exactly What You Want, it’s possible for introverts to use their natural tendencies to their advantage. “The latest research shows that the introverts out-persuade the extroverts,” Mortensen writes. “[T]hey listen more, they ask more questions, and they find out what their audience needs. … Introverts are simply better equipped to sense the wants and needs of their audience. Extroverts come across as old-school salespeople while introverts come across as desirable consultants.”
It’s this consultant attitude that clicks with so many employers today. I don’t mean to suggest that you should frame yourself as some kind of external resource or “gun for hire,” but listen well to what is required by the other party and then respond back sincerely with your thoughts on how those issues might be addressed. Go into every networking call, every interpersonal exchange, and every interview with the confidence that you can persuade them to let you help them reach their goals. Along the way, you’ll reach yours.