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Elon Musk Teaches Us How To Influence: What Successful Leaders Do To Inspire

    Elon Musk in a brown leather jacket on stage sitting and looking up.

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    Elon Musk, Master Persuader and SpaceX CEO, appeared for a surprise Q&A session recently at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. He made quite a sensation with his announcement of trips to Mars as early as next year. Plus, future colonization of the Red Planet.

    Ever wonder how Musk and other visionaries like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates grab our attention so easily and powerfully?

    Why Many Find It Difficult To Influence Others

    Well, if you have difficulty influencing people, you are not to blame. You have been taught wrong by misleading and unnecessarily complicated information out there. It is now easier than ever to persuade people now. The key is to home in on the right advice.

    Modern behavioral scientists have revealed the psychological laws that drive human decision-making. Robert Cialdini outlines them nicely in his two books (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade).

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    New research in the journal Behavioral and Brian Sciences (Mercier and Sperber) shows that reasoning evolved in early humans more for the sake of winning arguments than as a guide to effective decision-making.

    So when you try to persuade people by directly reasoning with them they will argue and resist. The right way to persuade is to apply ordinary techniques that fly under the radar. A master persuader knows that people cannot resist what they don’t detect. Here’s how Musk does it.

    1. Admit To Your Mistakes Early For Instant Credibility

    Owning up to your mistakes early is a stunningly effective strategy for becoming trustworthy to the people you are trying to persuade. People are easily convinced by a messenger they already view as credible making your strengths more compelling (Cialdini, Pre-Suasion). Skipping over your weaknesses or breezing through them only at the end invites more argumentation with the merits of your case.

    Musk owns up to missing deadlines in the past:

    “Although sometimes, my timelines are a little, you know…”

    He is also comfortable with discussing past failures:

    “We couldn’t even reach orbit with little Falcon 1.”

    2. Powerfully Brand Your Biggest Challenges And Connect Emotionally With Your Audience

    The obvious difficulty with making frequent trips to Mars is that the rocket needs to be powerful enough to deliver large payloads. Lesser leaders would have boringly gone over the capabilities of their rockets. Not Musk. He just brands it like a genius calling it a BFR, or “big f—ing rocket.” What more does anyone need to know?

    He also gets people to connect emotionally to a bygone era of space travel.

    “The goal of this was to inspire you and make you believe again just as people believed in the Apollo era that anything is possible.”

    3. Get People To Think Past The Sale And Use Strong Visuals

    This is an effective technique used by salespeople who have you focus on a choice or situation which forces you to assume compliance on the purchase. Car dealers will ask you if you’d prefer a red or a white car to get you thinking past the sale. Just visualizing yourself in their car will make you more likely to say yes to the purchase.

    For Musk, the difficult sale is to convince the first few people to travel on his missions to Mars. Life will not be easy and they will have to endure difficulties as the basic infrastructure is being built. He acknowledges this but then quickly makes them visualize the greatness of his Mars city.

    “….then really the explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity [will begin], because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints,…”

    “Mars should have really great bars. The Mars Bar.”

    Visual persuasion is the most effective form (Adams, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter). If you get people to imagine where you want to lead them, they will be much more willing to follow.

    4. Encourage People’s Dreams And Inspire Them

    Musk knows that SpaceX won’t be able to colonize Mars alone so he encourages other companies and governments. People who allow us to dream big and envision a better future for us gain a persuasive hold on us (Warren, The One Sentence Persuasion Course). We feel compelled to say yes to them for future requests.

    “Where are the space hotels that were promised in 2001 [A Space Odyssey], the movie?”

    “We wanted to get the public excited….of the space frontier getting pushed forward.”

    “I think once we build it we’ll have a point of proof something that other companies and countries can go and do. They certainly don’t think it’s possible, so if we show them that it is then I think they’ll up their game and build interplanetary transport vehicles as well.”

    True persuaders first connect to our emotions. They get us excited with their grand visions. To prevent us from faltering, they keep our focus away from the challenges and on the final beautiful outcome. In this cognitively primed state the facts they then provide are merely used as a justification for a decision we already made — to say yes to them.

    In the end our choices are made by anything but reasoning. But our minds still need to maintain the illusion of rationality. To do otherwise would lead to pure insanity.


    Elon Musk, Influence, Persuasion, Decision Making, Branding, Sales, Marketing, Leadership, Opinion Change, Robert Cialdini, Scott Adams, Blair Warren, SpaceX

    Books Mentioned In This Article And Further Reading

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at

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