With Compelling People, authors John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut— two communications experts who guest lecture at places like Harvard and advise CEOs and politicians—summarize their years of research and experience.
Their thesis is simple: “when we decide how we feel about someone, we are making not one judgment, but two. The criteria that count are what we call ‘strength’ and ‘warmth.'”
Strength, they explain, is “a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will” while warmth is “the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests and views of the world.”
But understanding what strength and warmth are is the easy part – the trick is implementing this understanding in our daily lives, and learning how to harness the power of this insight to our advantage.
The book provides something of a roadmap showing you how to do just that. Neffinger and Kohut start by acknowledging the factors you can’t control (i.e. gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) and how to best play the hand you’re dealt.
They then turn to a lengthy exploration of what you can do to project strength and warmth, and how all of these factors come together in our social lives, our culture and our politics.
Though Neffinger and Kohut aren’t scientists themselves, they go to great lengths to cite their sources and ensure their advice is well-founded. Along the way, they cite studies and name drop scientists, like Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, who I’ve come across in my own research or have seen cited in other works, which lends credence to their framework.
As professional communications consultants, they also have years of anecdotal experience to draw from, which nicely complements their more scientific research and helps them distill the science down into actionable, real-world advice.
A lot of books distil scientific research down into terms us laymen can understand, but the best ones go a step further, and provide specific instructions for how we can apply its lessons to our own lives.
Neffinger and Kohut do that expertly here. About a third of the book is dedicated to providing specific tips you can use to increase and project your strength and warmth in common settings—as they put it: “the office, the stage, the bar, the living room.”
Each of these settings requires a different combination of strength and warmth, as do different scenarios within one setting (for instance: how you should behave when interviewing for a job, versus how you should behave once you’ve landed it and started).
By breaking down each one in detail, Neffinger and Kohut demonstrate the depth of their knowledge and provide extremely specific – and utterly useful – advice.
Real World Examples
The authors put a heavy emphasis on the importance of storytelling, and they do a good job of practicing what they preach.
Each chapter is filled with not just scientific and anthropological studies, but real world stories drawn the authors’ own experiences and those of their friends, family and colleagues. The stories go a long way toward putting a human face on the scientific studies they cite and help you as the reader imagine how you can utilize their advice in your everyday life.
Rote Writing Style
The information in this book is extremely solid and very useful. My only real complaint about the book is that the authors write in a style that’s very straightforward and easy to understand, but kind of devoid of personality.
To some extent I suspect this is the product of co-writing a book – when everything you write has to be not just in your voice, but in the collective voice of you and your partner, it can be hard to interject your own personality.
It also might stem from the fact that Neffinger and Kohut come from the business world, where getting to the point tends to matter more than making jokes a long the way. (Just one of the many reasons why I would never make it in the business world!).
In other books in this genre, like How to Win Friends & Influence People and How to Talk to Anyone, the author’s personality almost leaps off the page, which seems appropriate for a book about how to be a more compelling person.
But as I said above, the authors do a good job of inserting real world examples, which are almost enough to personalize their advice in lieu of a distinct editorial voice. And because the information they’re sharing is so strong, and so damn valuable, the tone they write in is really more of a secondary concern (at most).
Can this book help you build self-confidence?
Absolutely. I’ve been devouring books in this genre for years now, and while classics like the aforementioned How to Win Friends & Influence People and How to Talk to Anyone still hold up, Compelling People makes for a welcome addition to the pantheon.
Its research is modern, expertly done and up to date, its examples are relatable and its advice is actionable. If you’re looking to become a more compelling – and confident – person, this is a great place to start.
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