The Best Influencer is You

By Scott Westerman (Audio)

When it comes to products, celebrity influencers can move inventory. When it comes to important issues, the best influencer is you.

As the Pandemic continues to dominate our lives, everyone famous seems to jump into the fray to promote their points of view. Jennifer Aniston and Dolly Parton are promoting vaccination. We’re seeing people like Lin Manuel Miranda’s smiling eyes behind a mask. And a plethora of videos are circulating, featuring notable celebs pressing points of view.

Damon Centola, a Penn sociology professor, told the Washington Post that these efforts may have the opposite effect. In the social world, the best influencer is you.

We get information and form opinions based on interactions within our tribes. While vaccination rates in Hong Kong are high, the elderly are balking and their doctors may be part of the problem. Ben Cowling, head of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong said in an interview with Bloomberg, “If they are concerned about any side effects, the elderly are referred to their family doctors, who may not want to deal with any issues with liability and are therefore more likely to tell them to be more cautious.” That group is tight knit and share common communication platforms. Changing minds will require the influence of people within the tribe.

A generation ago, Elvis Presley got a backstage polio vaccine at “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was a rare instance where celebrity was so powerful that it could be leveraged to help influence a dedicated fan base.

But we forget that even during the promotion of vaccination for Polio and Smallpox, it took time for people to get comfortable with the idea. Even today, there are cultural pockets that view any societal change with suspicion. The 1979 polio outbreak in Pennsylvania began in the Amish community. I remember seeing an occasional wheelchair-bound person at Chicago Union Station as Amish families waited to board westbound trains.

Marcus Yoder, a former member of the Amish community in rural Holmes County, Ohio, told NPR’s Anna Huntsman, “Historically in our community, we’ve been hesitant to embrace everything around us. But at some point, when we see the positiveness of it, the good it brings us, the strength it brings to our values, we’re going to move that direction.”

In the insulated echo chambers we create on social media, lashing out at people with differing opinions is easy. Understanding why they feel the way they do is much harder.

Centola says back-fence conversations may be the best way to provide information. And discovering the “why” behind a person’s beliefs is crucial.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, writing in his 1948 book Wisdom of the Sands shares how a common “why” can bring us together. He describes how diverse interests of a team building a boat can converge into a common sense of purpose.

“One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”

“The way we’re using social influence is a little outdated,” Damon Centola concludes. “Giving some groups a vehicle for talking about it and supporting each other in the communities is key. That’s how there’s information contagion, which can grow and spread around the nation.”

If you feel strongly about something, the key to influencing is to understand why someone else holds an equally strong, different opinion. As with the Hong Kong elderly, something completely different from the issue at hand may drive it.

Those who express empathy for our situations draw us closer, even if they may not agree with us on solutions. And all changes begin with one person and one idea. Whoever you are, you have a circle who looks to you for inspiration. That circle connects to other spheres of influence that radiate ideas outward. You can influence tiny waves that ripple outward, becoming tsunamis that impact people you will never meet.

An open mind and an empathetic heart clear the way for life-changing conversations. If you can cultivate them, you may find that the best influencer is you.