“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”
“You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without having asked any clear question.”
“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your…khakis.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt; Fight Club)
Charisma is a combination of attractiveness and unpredictability.
One magnetic person can influence an entire organization. The President that changes the entire direction of their country for the better – think Abraham Lincoln. The CEO that catapults their company from the gutter to epic levels of success – think Steve Jobs. The team captain that infects the entire franchise with a championship spirit – think Michael Jordan.
The word charisma, from the Greek meaning “favor given” has two different senses: 1) compelling attractiveness that can inspire devotion in others, and 2) a divinely conferred influence or talent.
Contemporary definitions of charisma maintain that there is some sort of irreducible, seductive and elusive character to charisma. The mysterious quality of charm suggests a connection to something unexplainable, even spiritual. This is why media commentators continue to describe charisma as the “It-factor” or “X-factor”.
The best way to understand something as enigmatic as charisma is to consider its opposite: repulsiveness.
Think about something that repulses you. If you are truly repulsed, even the thought of that thing will produce feelings of disgust, pushing you mentally and physically away from it. Focus on the intensity of those feelings. Charisma generates that same emotional intensity, just in the opposite direction – towards someone. Charismatic people are magnetic and alluring. They have presence.
Charisma is concrete.
Charisma is like gravity, it’s defined but you can’t put your hands on it. Recently, a lot has been written about the science of charm. In fact, “The Science Of Charm” was the original title of this lifestyle blog article. But if a key component of charisma is unpredictability, then an attempt to pinpoint a particular action that generates more of it is counterintuitive. Charisma, if nailed down, loses its capricious aura.
In O magazine (Oprah Winfrey’s magazine), Ronald Riggio, PhD, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College concluded that charismatic people have 3 main qualities. They are expressiveness (a talent for spontaneously striking up conversations and easily conveying feelings); control (the ability to fine-tune your persona to fit the mood and social makeup of any group); and sensitivity (a gift for listening and figuring out other people’s mind-sets). Charming people find ways to enjoy life by capitalizing on these traits.
Watch the below video of the 1992 Presidential debates with the sound off. No matter your political affiliation or feelings, the sharp contrast between George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton is astounding. This video has been listed on numerous other lifestyle blogs and is the single best example of the above qualities in action:
Did you notice how George Bush looked at his watch and pulled up his pants (at the very beginning), twitched, grimaced, scolded, looked away, and stood apart from the audience member – he came across as disconnected, uncontrolled and insensitive. Conversely, Clinton approached the audience member, made direct, yet comfortable eye contact with her, used expressive gestures, and kept a warm expression on his face. Incredible. The look on George Bush’s face afterwards was priceless.
Expressiveness, control and sensitivity – these three traits are a great foundation on which a person can build a charismatic personality. This foundation is a platform on which other charming traits can be built and refined. For example, confidence, ambition, enthusiasm, playfulness, purpose, positivity, generosity and humor are all words commonly used to describe charismatic people. Yet, these qualities do not equal charisma.
However elusive charisma might be, attempts are being made to measure it. Alex Pentland, Ph.D. and his colleagues at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory developed a gadget known as the sociometer that is said to be able to detect and measure charismatic actions by tracking speech patterns and bodily movement. Studies using the sociometer found that people who incorporate lots of the unconscious gestures and expressions are more likely to be successful in persuading others (e.g. closing a sale). Other studies have found that specific levels of nervous energy, mild fidgeting, and fast-talking are associated with charisma. Still, these actions alone do not make you charming.
Charisma involves context.
The quiver of a charismatic individual is large and each arrow is within reach. This is where control and sensitivity come into play. Speaking faster and developing a more energetic persona can help you connect better with people, or it can make you look like a spaz. Charismatic people are deft at “feeling out” a situation and picking up on unspoken queues. They hold the reigns of their many attractive traits tightly, allowing them to quickly express and suppress particular qualities according to the situation at hand.
Context matters. While enthusiasm, ambition, and humor are attractive under most circumstances, they are not charming on their own. In fact, depending on the context, they can be annoying or even repulsive. For example, the overly enthusiastic florist standing next to me in line at the DMV does not come off as charismatic. I do not want to talk about the beautiful aroma of fresh daisies when I’m stuck waiting for 30 minutes in the middle of an armpit. Under these circumstances, humor is a much more effective way to make a connection. Likewise, lecturing a family member about the importance of ambition and purpose two days after she’s been laid off is not inspiring, let alone alluring. And cracking well-meaning jokes at a funeral is obnoxious and distasteful, not charming.
Charisma relies on contrast.
Consider some of the most charismatic individuals in pop culture, both real and imaginary. Let’s start with Don Draper of “Mad Men” (played by Jon Hamm). This series is the first to ever win four Emmy’s in a row for Best Drama. What makes Don Draper so likeable? He has many of the attractive traits that we’ve described, but he can also be harsh, irritable, repressed, dishonest, wounded and weak. Marilyn Monroe was sexy, classy, warm, talented and one-of-a-kind, but she was also down-to-earth, clumsy, shy, tortured and neurotic. The magnetic power of charisma is intensified by contrast. Mystery and contradiction amplify the allure of a charismatic individual.
The statement, “charisma relies on contrast” is personified best by the movie character Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) is the anti-hero in the movie Fight Club. He has been voted the greatest movie character of all time, most recently in Empire magazine’s “100 Greatest Movie Characters” poll. Tyler Durden is literally the alter-ego of the nameless narrator of the movie (played by Edward Norton). The narrator is a faceless corporate executive, living in a condo stuffed with IKEA furniture, working a job he hates and living a life he hates more. He is weak, timid, cold, anxious and unsure of himself in every way. In contrast, Durden is strong, confident, relaxed, fun, and bold. Empire magazine writes, “he is effortlessly stylish, unshakeably cool, and dangerously charismatic”.
However, while contrasts are important and flawed heroes are alluring, it’s important to remember that it’s not their flaws that have made them successful in life. Rather than foster a destructive trait in hopes that it will create a charismatic contrast in your personality, nurture two positive traits that play off of each other in a charming way. Be confident and vulnerable…content and ambitious…intense and playful…flexible and reliable.
John Neffinger is a founder of KNP Communications, a consulting firm that teaches clients how to be more charismatic by helping them focus on the critical non-verbal aspects of communication. Drawing on the work of Harvard and Princeton psychologists as well as the American National Election Studies, KNP enforces a particular combination of traits: strength and warmth.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Neffinger stated, “Strength is conveyed primarily with posture and gestures. Good, erect posture is strong. Holding one’s hands palms up and facing away is weak, as are ‘self-comforting’ gestures, like rubbing one’s arm. Warmth is conveyed mostly by a genuine smile (in which the eye muscles smile in addition to the mouth muscles); but one must not smile in a way that undermines strength.”
Charisma can be increased.
Without numerous individual components working together, a charming personality falls apart. In other words, charisma requires the sum of all its parts. It’s the fluid unison of attractiveness and variability that allows a magnetic person to light up a room.
In order to blow up your charisma so that it can be seen from space, you need to maintain a bird’s eye view of your personality. Most lifestyle blogs will tell you to make narrow changes (i.e. “stand taller”, “dress better”, “talk faster”, “smile more”). But practicing different skills and repeating specific actions separately will have miniscule effects on your charisma. Similarly, wearing a $2,000 suit or carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag will add very little to your charm. It is far more productive to work on yourself internally and all at once.
1. Talk to human beings.
The most obvious way to boost your charisma is to directly interact with different types of people. In other words, get off of your computer, put your phone down, and spark up a conversation with a real live human being. I have a rule that when I’m in public places I put my iPhone away and I keep my head up. I stay on the look out for opportunities to engage other people in conversations. The easiest way to do this to ask someone how his day is going, then get his attention with an unpredictable follow-up response. For example:
Me: “Hi, how’s your day going?”
Stranger: “Fine, and yours?”
Me: “It’s the best day of my life.”
Stranger (chuckling with confusion, vexation and intrigue): “Really, why’s that?”
Then I say something clever and turn the conversation back on him. It sounds corny but it works. Sparking conversations with strangers is the single best way to practice being more sensitive and more expressive. When you have a face-to-face conversation with someone, your brain automatically takes in and processes numerous events (i.e. the tone and pitch of his voice, the rate of his speech, his mannerisms and facial expressions, his eye contact, his body language). Moreover, your entire nervous system responds to chemicals that his nervous system is releasing, and vice versa. The more you interact with people, the better your brain becomes at registering and reacting to these various stimuli.
If you go to a coffee shop to do work – great, fire up your computer, lock in, and get busy. But if you’re walking down the street or waiting in line at the store – unplug, look up, and meet people.
2. Read broadly, read ravenously.
Reading and learning in general have always been great ways to boost your charisma. Everyone that’s read any type of self-help book has done so, in part, because they’ve wanted to elevate their charisma. The entire field of personal development is devoted to enhancing a person’s magnetism. The keys to increasing your charisma are the same keys to enjoying life and gaining influence.
The mistake that most people make is that they keep reading the same repackaged messages over and over again in books and articles that differ only in their titles. When reading, strive for variety. If you’re an investment banker, skip the next book about Warren Buffet and read Bossy Pants by Tina Fey. If you just finished reading your fifth cookbook by Rachael Ray, trying reading Mark Twain’s autobiography. If you read Men’s Health or Esquire magazine when you fly, try reading Home & Design or Dwell magazine. Reading in this way will drastically broaden your knowledge base and help you connect with different types of people.
3. Laugh and make others laugh.
None of the articles or books that I read for this post focused on the importance of humor in generating a charming persona. In fact, most of them did not mention humor. Humor is a universal lubricant. Think of your charismatic personality as an internal combustion engine, with your attractive traits firing like pistons at different times. Humor is the motor oil that keeps your engine running smoothly. Without it, everything starts to grind out of sync.
Making a person laugh is the most effective way to generate a connection with him. Charismatic individuals are able to make a variety of people laugh, even those with wildly different senses of humor. This is due to a charmer’s ability to understand people and situations.
A great way to develop your own sense of humor is to watch stand-up comedians perform, preferably live. Comics are extremely adept at feeling out their audiences and environments, all while adapting rapidly to the stimuli they receive. Their goal is to make people laugh by being clever and unpredictable. They teach people how to enjoy life.
Understand: having a bad sense of humor, or being awkward, is the charisma kiss of death. And every group has an awkward friend. Don’t be that friend.
4. Pay attention to the pros.
I rarely watch television, but sometimes I will tune in to a particular daytime or nighttime talk show and study the host. Talk show hosts are some of the most charismatic people on the planet. That’s their job. Watch Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and even Craig Ferguson. Go back and watch the masters: Johnny Carson and Oprah Winfrey. What do they all have in common? How do they operate?
First, at the start of the show, each host acts like a stand-up comedian, engaging everyone and making them laugh. The host gets a feel for his audience by telling jokes and discussing fun and interesting topics. Next, when the guests come on the show, the host sits down with them and has a conversation. He asks open-ended questions, guiding the conversational thread while instigating unpredictable digressions. He is playful, yet respectful. Most importantly, he keeps the focus on the other person by LISTENING.
Listening is the most underrated charismatic action. Learning how to listen properly will dramatically enhance your charm. The only way to truly empathize and connect with other human beings is to listen to them. Instead of waiting for your turn to talk and rehearsing your next response in your head, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Try to understand where she is coming from. Why is she saying what she is saying? What compels her? This will help you be more sensitive to all types of people. Continue to ramp up your charisma by letting the other person know you are listening. Smile. Nod your head. React to what she is saying with your facial expressions and body language.
Finally, talk show hosts help their guests and audience interact. Like all charismatic people, they help everyone connect. During each interview, the host will constantly turn to the audience for feedback on what the guest is saying and where the interview is going. A good host does this naturally, without any evidence of pandering. No matter how boring a situation might be, a charismatic person is always enjoying life and showing others how to enjoy life.
Charisma has altered the course of humanity, for better and for worse, more than any other human quality. Avoid using charisma as a Mickey Mouse band-aide to cover up moral and intellectual shortcomings. Develop yourself in a way that enhances both your charm and your overall essence. Combining your charisma with substance will help you generate extraordinary levels of influence.