Can’t get co-workers to cooperate on an important project? Boss won’t listen to your ideas? The Wharton School’s Richard Shell can help. By Caroline Tiger


There’s a video résumé by a Yale student named Aleksey Vayner that quickly became a viral Internet phenomenon when it was leaked from the financial services giant, UBS—the recipient of Vayner’s job application—in fall 2006. The seven-minute video, entitled “Impossible Is Nothing,” features a smooth-skinned, bespectacled braggart making hyperbolic claims of super-human strength, intelligence, and accomplishments: Vayner’s show and tell includes footage of him bench-pressing nearly 500 pounds, serving a tennis ball at 140 m.p.h., and qualifying for the Olympics in downhill skiing. Between these athletic feats, he sits in front of a bookcase, dressed in a business suit, answering questions posed by an off-camera interviewer.

It’s a safe bet that none of the many, many web surfers who snickered over the video (no longer available, by the way) devoted anything like the attention lavished upon it by the participants in Professor G. Richard Shell’s Strategic Persuasion Workshop at Wharton’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education when Shell plays the video on the morning of day one of a three-day seminar in March. After Vayner splits a stack of bricks with a bare hand and the credits begin to roll, Shell walks to the center of the room to begin to dissect this example of how not to be persuasive. He asks the 33 men and women who are assembled, “What’s wrong with this communication as a moment of persuasion?”

 

What’s right about it? Hardly anything, at least as far as this audience and the general Internet-using public in America is concerned. “But when we showed this video to a group in Mumbai,” Shell tells the workshop participants, “No one laughed.” In India, he reports, they took Vayner seriously. The Yalie didn’t hit the target at UBS, but he might’ve scored a job in Mumbai or with a PR firm in New York, several of which offered to hire him after the video spread. (Vayner declined.) “Your credibility is in the eye of the audience,” explains Shell, Wharton’s Thomas Gerrity Professor and professor of legal studies and business ethics. And credibility is one key to persuasion, the intangible notion that the Strategic Persuasion Workshop, launched in 2007 to coincide with the publication of The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion To Sell Your Ideas (Portfolio/Penguin), promises to clarify.

A copy of the book that Shell co-wrote with his workshop co-instructor, Mario Moussa, sits on the table in front of each student in the conference room. Earlier that morning, they went around the room, introducing themselves and sketching the specific challenges that brought them here from as far as Spain and Nebraska. Among the group is a founder of a brand-new Berkeley nonprofit who’s struggling to sell her mission to all levels of supporters; a director of a sales team at a personal-care company who wants to land a Wal-Mart account; and a group manager at the Federal Reserve who has been charged with effecting change throughout many branches where the employees are resistant. One participant, the director for educational partnerships at a Department of Energy national research laboratory in Idaho, is here, he says, because his boss told him, “Andy, you need to be more persuasive.”

If Shell and Moussa’s low-key, friendly introductions haven’t put the room at ease, Andy’s half-joking, half-serious comment does. His boss’s observation is what they all imagine their own boss or colleagues to be thinking about them, even if the notion hasn’t been expressed so plainly. After Andy’s comment, Shell rips off the rest of the Band-Aid. “Other people are seeing you the way we just saw Aleksey Vayner,” he says. “We’re going to teach you how to persuade them otherwise.”

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