Home Advice For The Young At Heart Influence Is The Ultimate Life Skill. Here’s How College Students Can Start Building...

Influence Is The Ultimate Life Skill. Here’s How College Students Can Start Building It Now.


by Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know

A new school year brings endless possibilities, but also many challenges. There are tough classes to take, challenging schedules to navigate, roommate dilemmas to solve, and decisions to make about activities, internships, and more. Amidst this uncertainty, here is some advice for returning students: Focus on building your influence and it will help you with all the rest.

Influence is the ability to move people to action. When you can connect with others and motivate them to work toward shared goals, you have true influence — and it will make your life better in so many ways. This skillset will help you thrive in college and beyond.

Not only will honing your influence skills lead to productive relationships with faculty, fellow students, and employers (assuming you have a part-time job) — enabling you to shine in your academic work, make your mark in student organizations, and compete successfully for internships and other opportunities — it’s good practice for the (so-called) real world.

You are in college to learn, and not all of that learning is connected to mastering the course work. Every interaction you have during college is a training ground for future interactions in your career and community once you graduate. Look at these four, or six, or more years as prime time for growing your influence.

Many people misunderstand influence, confusing it with manipulation or social media fame. True influence flows from strong values, a desire to help others, and win-win relationships. Here are some of top tips for college students looking to boost their influence:

Start with a complete self-inventory.

What are your values? What are you building towards? You must start here, because this is what drives everything else. Influence is about who you are, not just what you do. When you’re young, you may still be learning about yourself, and that’s fine. But be sure to ask yourself why you want the power to influence others.

Will you use your power for personal gain or for the greater good? Do you want to have the power to lord it over others or the power to make things happen that will benefit many? The way you use your power says a lot about your character and will determine your legacy.

Ask yourself: How can I help others?

Counterintuitive as it may sound, real influence comes from the ability to help the people around you and shape the world into a better place. This is what makes others want to follow you and what will ultimately drive your success.

Find a cause that matches your interests and passions. Use your skills and talents to support it. Your help may not be monetary. It may be something less obvious, like the ability to help people think creatively. Not only will you draw others to you, you’ll become a better person and experience a real sense of fulfillment.

Start building your network now.

Keep your name in front of people you want to connect with. Make a list of people you would like to know in your field, the media, politics, or other realms. Then narrow that list to a manageable number. Research their backgrounds, such as where they went to school, what boards they serve on, their charitable causes. Then, find ways to regularly connect with them.

I know a fellow who wanted to reach three key people. He put their names in his electronic Rolodex, and when something would come up in the news related to their interests, he would contact them with the information. It was an enormous help in making connections. Don’t overdo it, of course. You want to be helpful, not pesky.

Focus on what you can do for others, not vice versa…

This is the essence of networking. It’s not about shaking hands and smiling at networking events. It’s about really connecting with people based on shared values and being prepared to add value. And it’s not a one-way street.

Focus on what you have to offer. Research industries and leaders you are likely to meet. Have something to talk about with them that will convey your knowledge and interest. And most of all — listen. The people you connect with need to come away thinking about what you could do for them, rather than the other way around.

… and know that networking is an ongoing process, not a “one-and-done” activity.

You may think the purpose of your network is to find a good job after graduation, or grow your business, or make sales, or climb the career letter. But the truth is that it’s about building lifelong relationships. You are not there, hat in hand, seeking a job. That may come eventually, but don’t be so desperate to make it happen. Life unfolds in its own time.

When making personal connections, know that the little details matter.

Much depends on how you interact with others. Always be nice. Know birthdays and send cards with a short personal note. Use correct grammar and spelling. Give credit to others. And be respectful of people’s time: Return phone calls and emails promptly (within 24 hours is best).

Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude. A simple “thank you” to your professors or advisors will go a long way.

In our nonstop, sometimes frantic lives, we may easily forget the importance of gratitude, the value of that often brief but vital connection we make when we take a moment to smile and say “thank you.” People benefit from saying it as much as the one listening appreciates hearing it. Vast emotional distances may be overcome in a moment by a “thank you” that conveys “I value you and what you do.”

Protect your reputation, starting now.

The more power and influence you end up accumulating, the greater the efforts of others to take them away — or at least take them down a few notches. Assume your life is an open book. Social media has forever blurred the lines between “personal” and “professional,” so think before you post anything inflammatory, controversial, or politically sensitive. It could come back to bite you, many years from now.

Own your mistakes.

Mistakes are bound to happen, particularly if you are doing new and innovative things. Never try to hide from them or shift blame to others. Instead, own the mistake. Take responsibility, learn from it, and find a constructive way to move forward. Don’t wallow in failure.

Sharpen your communication skills.

Before you say it or write it, get clear on what you want to communicate. The more focused your communication is, the deeper the impression it will make. Focus begins with clear thinking. Ask yourself what result or action you want before you send the email, pick up the phone, speak up in class, or write the speech.

Make sure your tone and word choice match your goal. Be succinct. Always. No one wants or has the time to wade through verbiage.

Use the strong language of success.

For example, avoid clichés. Not only do they make your message unclear — after all, what does “Get the ball rolling” or “Think outside the box” really mean? — they make you seem lazy. Be original. Always use the active voice, never the passive. Make your sentences energetic, not flabby.

When speaking, as in writing, use active, muscular verbs. And please, avoid the temptation to ‘-ize’ a word. Don’t promise to ‘prioritize’; say that you will ‘set priorities.’ Use the strong language of success.

Seek to be a problem solver and conflict neutralizer.

Dr. Zoe Chance, an author, researcher, and professor at the Yale School of Management, had a question that she claims can “transform conversational dynamics”: What would it take for us to resolve this?

The key to having influence is to get people to focus on a problem that is clearly and succinctly stated (and usually, you’ll have to be the one to do the clarifying and the stating). Then, you find out why the issue is so emotionally important to the people involved; finally, you offer a solution that satisfies all the parties needed to make the solution work.

Finally, find harmony between your studies, your extracurricular activities, your network-building efforts, and your social life. This necessitates a mindset shift that will hopefully carry through into the life you craft long after you leave the college years behind. 

The well-rounded individual makes little distinction between work and play, labor and leisure, the mind and body, education and recreation, love and religion. When you are doing work that provides satisfaction and personal fulfillment, it doesn’t feel like work. It is part of the natural flow of your life. It’s like moving effortlessly with the current in a river instead of fighting every inch to go upstream.


Robert Dilenschneider 2

Robert L. Dilenschneider, founder and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, is one of the world’s foremost communication experts and leadership coaches. Dilenschneider has authored 18 seminal business and career development books. He has counseled major corporations and professional groups around the globe and is frequently called upon by the media to provide commentary and strategic public relations insights on major news stories.