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3 Lessons From History's Greatest Con Man

Victor Lustig was a legendary French con man, known as the “man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice.” He even scammed the ruthless Al Capone and lived to tell about it; in fact, Capone thought he was the most honest man he’d met. Lustig kept a list of 10 “commandments of the con,” ways to gain trust and get people to like you, and that are helpful even for those who want to stay on the right side of the law. These three tips will help put everyone you meet more at ease and willing to do business with you and your company.

Be a good listener

You might think of con men as smooth-talking hucksters, overwhelming people with their sales pitch before closing the deal. But Lustig’s approach was exactly the opposite: let them talk to you. His first two commandments are “be a patient listener” and “never look bored,” both great pieces of advice. Your potential client has a reason for wanting to talk to you; figure out what they need and how you can deliver. Only speak when you have a clear point and can demonstrate that you’ve been listening to what they’ve been saying. They’ll appreciate that you’re taking the time to hear them out, and you’ll be better prepared to offer them exactly what they need.

Don’t talk too much about yourself

Don't Talk About Yourself

Lustig warns against revealing political, religious, and other personal opinions while talking to someone you don’t know well. Not only are they inappropriate for a business conversation, but you might also be setting yourself up for a heated disagreement over something irrelevant to the task at hand. Another commandment states, “Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.” The truth is, you’re not there to talk about yourself. You’re there to talk about what you can do for the other person. The adage, “show, don’t tell,” comes into play here. You want them to realize the potential benefits of working with you without you having to state them explicitly.

Always be and look professional

The final two commandments deal with personal appearance and conduct: “never be untidy” and “never get drunk.” How you present yourself is crucial to how your clients see you, and they will take their business elsewhere if they don’t like what they see. One of Lustig’s biggest advantages was that he didn’t look like a con man; he looked like a respectable and serious businessman. The approach worked for the guy who at one point sold a magical “money-printing machine”; just think of what it could do for a legitimate business. Look sharp, show up on time (or early), and always follow up promptly. Acting courteous and respectful is a must, and it should go without saying that showing up after a drink is verboten.

Victor Lustig may not have been an ethical man, but he knew how to interact with people and get them on his side. His strategies can help you serve your clients’ needs better, and make them feel more comfortable with your partnership. Just be sure to use these powers for good. Lustig may have lived the high life throughout his career, but he finally ended up in a house bigger than any mansion: Alcatraz.


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