How to influence others and make your voice heard

Leadership is often focused on influencing followers; however we all have the ability to influence those who have as much or more power than we do. Based on over a decade of teaching leadership, here are my five key lessons for academics on how to influence others:


Build your bases of power

Academics are often faced with influencing people or organisations over whom we do not hold a formal position of power, such as other academics or funding bodies. Two sources of personal power are available to someone in this position: respect and liking. This is also called ‘expert power’ and ‘referent power’.  Expert power involves building a reputation as someone with valuable expertise, perhaps through one’s background or experience, or simply doing one’s job to such an excellent standard that it garners others’ respect. Referent power comes from being the person that everyone wants on their team, not so much for expertise (that would be expert power), but for having desirable personal qualities, such as being dependable or trustworthy. When assessing how successfully you can influence someone, consider the expert and referent power you have in their eyes.


Manage the voice inside your head

When preparing for an important event, such as a conference presentation, we might find our confidence undermined by a voice in our heads whispering, “You’re not very good at presentations, especially online ones.” We often make the mistake of ignoring that voice – a strategy which backfires when the voice goes deceptively silent, only to flare up on the day of the presentation. Instead, acknowledge the voice and replace it with a more helpful statement and positive emotion. For example, you could focus on the value of your message: “Whether or not I’m good at presentations doesn’t matter – I have important research to share with my peers and they need to hear it.” Replace your nervousness with a sense of urgency or purpose.


Hone your non-verbal communication skills

In presentation skills training, we learn to use eye contact, stand up straight, look poised, and sound confident. Not only is this important for keeping the audience engaged, but it can also make the messenger more convincing. The same message delivered with confidence, rather than uncertainty, results in the speaker being seen as more charismatic, leader-like and competent. To be influential, we must hone the delivery of the message, not just the message itself. Our non-verbal signals, such as our tone of voice and our pauses, can help put students at ease and encourage them to absorb information. When teaching online, pay special attention to lighting and sound quality - it’s easier to be engaging and influential if your face is visible and your voice is crystal clear.


Be aware of the cultural lens you are wearing

The staff and student populations of our universities are from all over the world, which means we need to be aware of the unique combination of cultural lenses through which each person sees the world. Ignoring these differences can cause misunderstandings with our students and our peers when the behaviour that one person perceives as acceptable – such as interrupting or disagreeing – is perceived as rude or unprofessional by the other. Being aware of cultural differences and taking them into account is critical when trying to influence others, especially when you are not in a position of power and the other person is not obligated to listen to you.


Focus on your circle of influence

If you’ve ever felt powerless about the state of the world, then you’re not alone. But if you want to be an influential person in your business school and outside it, minimise those gripe sessions and focus on what is within your control. I recently held a brainstorming session with my students on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. On the surface, these goals seemed overwhelmingly difficult to achieve, but once we focused on specific actions that students can take, we ended up with a surprisingly long list, from using apps to reduce food waste to volunteering in local schools and buying second hand clothing. These personal leadership actions, while small in isolation, are impactful in combination. Focusing on your circle of influence can make you feel more in control of your life and help you be a positive role model for your students.


Being influential involves more than communication techniques. It involves building a powerful reputation, managing the voice inside your head, understanding the cultural lenses that you and others are wearing, and engaging in positive action. Even without formal positions of power, we can exercise leadership every day, creating positive change by making our voices heard.


Connson Locke is a lecturer at the London School of Economics and Politics and author of Making Your Voice Heard, available from