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Alain Sylvain: Understanding Power Languages


We all recognize power when we see it, be it the presence of an intimidating stance, the dynamics of a hierarchical workplace, or the control of a systemic force. For Alain Sylvain, Founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, learning your power language is the key to unlocking your potential. In this talk, he dissects the markers of power that surround us, and how we can leverage inherent skills to assert ourselves.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 22, 2020, and includes an introduction from Alain recorded on June 3, 2020 following the death of George Floyd.

Alain Sylvain, Founder & CEO, Sylvain Labs

Alain is the founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, a strategy and design consultancy that helps clients including Google, American Express, Airbnb, Spotify, and IKEA seize the reality and potential of their business. Founded in 2010, the company is headquartered in New York City, with offices in Amsterdam and Richmond, VA, and is a Certified B-Corporation. Alain is a partner and investor in several ventures, on the board of Plus Pool, and a member of the New York City Mayor’s Creative Council.

Additional materials for this talk:
Download The Power Language of Collective Action

Full Transcript

Hi, my name is Alain Sylvain. You’re about to watch a presentation I gave on May 22nd entitled Power Languages. And it was about how do we unlock our internal creative potential for power and our relationship to power which is a little eerie and prophetic in this moment we’re in. It was it was shot a couple days before the death of George Floyd which of course sparked a social moment, a social crisis. And frankly, it was a social crisis a moment that we’ve been in for generations.

But for me, as you watch this presentation, you know I would urge you to do three things. You know one is learn. You know what it does power mean to you and what is your relationship to power. Two is act. How do you take this kind of passive watching presentation experience and do something about your perception of power and what power means to you. And three, and maybe more importantly, is commit. How can you make this learning about power endure and really have some longevity for you and the greater society that we all live in. So, this is the context for this talk and I hope it resonates. Thanks.

Hello internet, my name is Alain Sylvain, the founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs and I’m here to talk about power languages, how we all have a unique relationship to power and when you unlock it you are really capable of doing incredible things. By way of introduction, my company Sylvain Labs is a strategy and design consultancy headquartered in New York. We help companies think about the future of their products in brands. We’re about 10 years old, certified B Corporation, wholly independent. We work with a number of different companies in a number of different industries, helping them think about brand strategy and innovation and design.

But I wanna take a pause and I wanna think about creative people. I wanna think about you. I wanna talk about designers and what designers are capable of because when designers manifest their ideas, they have the power to shape and influence the world. Their ideas are visceral, they’re psychological, they’re emotional. Creative power, you might even argue, is more important and more powerful than the creative person, him or herself. If the potential of creativity is greater than the possessor of creativity. So, if we take a step back and we think about, what does that power mean? And how can we manifest that power as creative people in order to truly maximize our potential?

It starts quite simply with the definition of power which if you reduce it to its quite simplest, it’s really about being able, to be able or not to be able. That’s what it means to be powerful. If you deconstruct it a little bit further, you’ll see there’s so many applications of the concept. We use it in so many different ways and quite casually actually. We use it colloquially, we use it simply, we use it culturally. There’s several definitions and applications for the concept of power but one thing we can’t deny though, is that or maybe that’s in itself as an example of the fact that power is everywhere. It’s everywhere we look, especially as creative and designers. As we operate, we are in a political or power structure, every single interaction we have with clients, with our surroundings, with our work, with culture.

Power is everywhere and we use it in a number of ways. You think about the power elite, the mysterious cabal of political leaders and business leaders and celebrities that run the world. Or you think about power on a more personal level. How our own will power is a very quiet and private capacity that we have. Power can be societal, it can be personal, it can be social. You think about, you know, manspreading on the train, a really subtle social microaggressive cue to assert some sort of power. Or you think about social media which may be in and of itself is nothing but an experiment in power where you’re amassing followers, asserting influence on others. It’s nothing but a machine of power that you’re entering.

We use the term power everywhere. We use it in professional sports. You think about the power forward which is really a symbolic and important player on the field or you think, around the court, you think about the power play in hockey which is an incredibly powerful moment. We use the term power when we think about superpowers. You know is China an emerging superpower is a question that’s often asked. We use it when we talk about superpowers in this context, when we’re talking about, you know, fantasy or science fiction. The word power, it interweaves itself in everything we do, certainly culture, I mean if you you think about hip hop and I’m a huge hip hop fan, hip hop in and of itself is nothing but an experiment of power. It’s about people on the margins of society asserting some control over their own life and their future, telling stories in new and different ways which ultimately amasses a sense of political and social power, social currency.

So, what does the concept of power mean for the designer or the creative? What does power mean in our everyday interactions? How can we relate to power in a way that arms us with capacity in our own capabilities? Let’s take a step back. Let’s look at history. Let’s look at science. Let’s really get nerdy. Let’s deconstruct this concept of power and really not be so turned off or scared of what that could mean because the term itself could be quite intangible, it can be quite abstract. And you know, on one hand, it could be dynamic. You could be powerful in one situation, and then lose that power quite quickly.

If you look at history or geopolitical history, this was a great example in Rand McNally’s Histomap which really shows over centuries, how political dynasties and regimes shifted and how power shifted over hundreds and hundreds of years. Power is dynamic, it’s constantly shifting. One person could be powerful in one dynamic and quickly lose it in the next. Winston Churchill, the famed and legendary UK prime minister, asserted incredible power during World War II but famously lost in the general election to the Labour Party and it wasn’t until six years later did he regain the premiership. Power is dynamic, based on time. Power is also relative. One person could be powerful, only relative to someone else. You’re only powerful relative to someone else, not in and of itself. Power is entirely a relative dynamic.

We often look at CEOs of public companies and think, well, this person is incredibly powerful. This person wields incredible power when in reality, those people are actually in service of a board of directors who, you might argue, are really the leaders or the powerful people. This concept of power being relative plays out in business every day but it also plays out in nature and in science. The Epomis beetle is a great example of this. Amphibians obviously eat insects to survive but the Epomis beetle is the one insect that will kill any amphibian that tries to eat it. An amphibian, a frog, takes a bite and it dies, every single time and the Epomis survives. Who’s the predator and who’s the prey? Who’s powerful and who’s not? Or you think about this forum right here where I’m talking to you. Yes, I’m communicating my ideas, does that make me powerful? But you are interpreting my ideas and judging them, does that make me power less? Power is relative and constantly changing.

Power is situational depending on where you sit and what’s the context of where you are, power situational we saw that in Vietnam as a great example. The American military might was contingent on conventional weaponry and conventional war tactics, when the Vietcong relied on more guerrilla warfare, things like booby traps and relying on jungle cover, that arms the Vietnamese with an unprecedented power that the US was not capable to deal with. In some contexts, learning disabilities are viewed as powerless dynamics. That if you you are autistic or dyslexic, that you are inherently powerless.

But in certain situations, we’ve actually seen how those learning disabilities can be advantages and could arm someone with a new sense of power. We see, we hear these stories all the time. Certainly the story of Ikea and of the founder, he was famously dyslexic and something about his dyslexia, something about how he interacted with language and with design and symbology allowed him to create what we know of today as IKEA. So, power is actually situational too.

Ultimately, power shapes every single human interaction. It’s everywhere, it’s part of our natural human experience. We’re born with it. We’re used to it. Even starting as children, we learn about it. We learn about it in our interactions with our family. We learn all about it through Dr. Seuss. We learn about it everywhere. That this idea of autonomy and control is important. It’s part of the human condition to really understand and behave within that contract. I believe designers, creatives, there are few people that face power dynamics more. Where at first you’re endowed with a craft to create ideas and bring things to life that no one else can, it took years to master, it took an inherent capacity for invention and fantasy and imagination that makes someone creative but at the same time, in order to truly leverage it in this industry, in this economy, you have to sell it to other people that might be more powerful, clients, let’s call them clients or stakeholders, who judge and oftentimes might think of themselves as more powerful than you because of that sheer fact that they’re paying for the work.

So, who’s powerful? Is it the craft or is it the funder? So, I believe designers have a unique relationship with power and and it’s interesting to think about what that could mean. We all react to power differently, that’s the thing. It’s like love. You know love we all have a way of asserting, expressing love, we have a way of receiving love. Power is the same exact way and certainly for creative designers, we have a way of asserting power and we have a way of receiving power.

You know there was the book “The Love Languages” that really broke down how we can express and receive love. That was a beautiful simple distillation of it. We can do it through acts of service. We can do it through physical touch. We can do it through words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time. In the same way, I argue that there are power languages, that there are ways that we exert control over others, there are ways that we understand control or we feel controlled and I’ll explain what I mean.

So first, there’s posturing. Posturing and this could be physical and this could be more abstract, but the notion of posturing, the notion of building up symbols to suggest that one is more assertive or more powerful than another is in itself, a language. You know there was this great TED talk about Wonder Woman and the stance of posture and superheroes of course use that stance. And by the way, you know political icons and celebrities use that stance to say something about how powerful they are. Or you look at the the barrel-chested, you know, Vladimir Putin on a horse, if anything that’s nothing but a posture. It’s like, look, I am one with nature and I can control this beast.

And those sort of posturing moments are ways that parties often assert a certain control or power. We face posturing as creatives and designers all the time when we’re dealing with contracts or we’re dealing with you know reviews, some of those formalities, those protocols are really nothing but moments of posturing. How about persuasion? Persuasion is another way to understand and deliver a sense of power. Machiavelli, of course, famously said, “Never attempt to win by force what can be won “by deception.” And the way, the power of persuasion, the power to allow people to change their behavior and think differently about who they are and where they’re going, that persuades, that power of persuasion is obviously a power in and of itself. Or how about power through personal attack? The idea of diminishing someone’s stature in order to increase our own.

There are some people I don’t need to tell you about who do that quite well. We face it even in our everyday through designers and creatives through some of those formalities, through that you know the five minutes waiting on a Zoom is in a way a personal attack. So, I think we face these things every day. And ultimately, all three of those things are tied to intimidation. Those asserting power are looking to intimidate and those who are powerless often feel intimidated. We have a natural reaction of intimidation, where we shrink. We shrink when we see power. And society has worked really, really hard to define what power is in culture today. We believe there’s a standard, there’s a standard for what power looks like in culture and we in turn shrink to it, every single time. It’s part of the great cultural industrial complex, it’s part of socializations.

Babies are raised seeing power looked like a certain thing and they react to it and I’ll explain what I mean. Power is often viewed as masculine. We can definitely see that when it comes to the presidents in the modern era, whether you’re talking about Ronald Reagan with his ax, you’re talking about George W. with hunting or you know famously, he was the guy you wanted to have a beer with or he think about Obama on the court. Those were all kind of symbols of power and they were tied to what often are perceived as masculine.

Power is often also viewed as menacing, scary, mysterious. That we don’t know what what’s possible when something powerful comes our way, that it’s ruthless and unfettered. Power also plays out in normal social interactions in the sense that, we believe subconsciously and through socialization often, that white men are more powerful than anybody else and it plays out in culture. We see it in Hollywood. 70% of all speaking roles in Hollywood are spoken by white men. You go to Washington DC, you look at all the monuments in Washington DC, they’re all white men. You look at the boards of the greatest companies and organizations or political leaders, white men. It’s part of an education that people have had where it really begins to seep into your subconscious.

Power is often also tied to wealth. You think about the Rockefellers or you think about the Kennedys or the Bushes, there’s a direct connection between the wealth and political power. Power also favors good-looking people, attractive people, like we often defer to attractive people ’cause we think they are they are more powerful. You can look at celebrities, you can look at prime ministers around the world. So, how do we unleash our own potential? Now, that we understand power in a greater kind of macro cultural way, how do we truly use this learning to help us in our creative work and the work of design? How can we understand our language, our own power languages, flip it? How can we flip it? How can we take our power languages and use them more as tools to help us get to where we wanna go?

And I’ll give you a few examples. So, the first, remember I said power is dynamic, that it can change over time, that one person could be powerful one moment and then maybe a moment or two later, they’re no longer powerful. You know Thomas Edison is such a great example of someone that really challenged this notion. He was prolific. He was incredibly productive. He produced and drafted thousands and thousands of patents. Actually, it wasn’t until 2003 that he held the record for the most patents held. He created companies, he founded universities, he was a incredibly productive and enterprising human being. He was unfettered and relentless when it comes to productivity. His ambition was incredible. And it was through that ambition that he was able to weather the dynamism of the world of power.

Or Sir James Dyson who it took him over 5,000 patents to eventually discover the vacuumless vacuum that we all know as Dyson. It was 5,000 times and only took one time to be right. You know that ruthless ambition, that ability to stick with it for that long, that drive, that’s how we truly face and deal with a world where power is so dynamic. Power is relative, remember I said that. So, power is relative. Power really depends on who you are powering over or who you are empowered by. And so, a great example of this is Greta Thunberg who famously alerted the world further about climate change and the climate crisis. And what’s interesting about Greta Thunberg is it’s not so much what she was saying, it’s not so much the anger with which she was saying it but she had a currency that everyone else talking about this topic, didn’t have. She uncovered a new currency and that was the fact that she was young. It was her youth that was a currency in itself that armed her with an authority, an authoritative voice when it comes to the climate crisis. People listen to her because she’s young and some might even argue because she’s a young woman. It makes her unique and it makes her powerful.

So, how can we as creative people uncover a new currency for us that give us a new opportunity to assert power? Power is also situational. So, remember I said that, it depends on the context and where you are. But if you embrace the rebel within, if you embrace that there’s a rebellious instinct within all of us, all the time, you can achieve a sense of power. Because remember, power requires a certain sense of passivity. You know Prince is such a great example of this and I will never miss an opportunity to talk about Prince. Frustrated with his label and with the record industry, he famously said, “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you.” He over the last twenty or thirty years of his career, every move he made was a challenge to the record industry and the entire marketing complex to assert some creative control in what he was making and who he was. He famously, he sold the first album online. He changed his name to a kind of indecipherable symbol. Those were all famous examples and acts of rebellion.

So, embracing the rebel within is important. So, if power is dynamic, power is relative and power is situational, I argue that we should employ relentless drive like Thomas Edison. Never stop, be ambitious, create, be prolific, be productive in the face of changing times. I argue that we should activate new currency, we should find new things within us that make us different and create a new voice for who we can be. Greta Thunberg did that by virtue of the very fact that she was young. Or we embrace the rebel within.

We find new opportunities to challenge the status quo and don’t stop, don’t stop challenging that. And I think through a combination of relentless drive, new currency and rebellion, we can really unlock the potential of our own power language. Thank you for listening. My name is Alain, founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs. See you next time.

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