I was reading an article – interview really – in the March HBR about Charisma and it got me thinking. The interview was with William von Hippel who, along with his colleagues, published the results of their study on thinking speed and Charisma. Their research seems to indicate that people who think quickly are perceived as more charismatic, independent of their IQ or other personality traits.

Well crap! That’s not what I want to hear. I am many things, but quick thinking? I think not. I’m great at Trivial Pursuit or even “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, but nobody in my family wants me on their team for Celebrity Name Game or Pictionary. Does that mean that my dream of being charismatic – or at least more charismatic – is doomed to failure? People with higher levels of Charisma get noticed and listened to. They’re more influential. I’d like that, wouldn’t you?

What Is Charisma?

First off, let’s make sure that we are on the same page about what we mean by Charisma. The dictionary defines it as:

  1. Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others

Man, this just keeps getting worse and worse for me. Attractiveness? Charm?

  1. A divinely conferred power or talent

Divinely conferred? Does that mean that you are either born with Charisma or not? This is starting to sound a bit hopeless.

Let me approach Charisma from a different angle. Another way to look at Charisma is in the impact that it has on us.  When we perceive someone as Charismatic, we have some type of positive emotional reaction to the person. Something about them captures our attention and impresses us. We may develop a sense of awe and admiration about them. Or it may be more about how they may make us feel. Many years ago when I was being trained in psychology I had a professor named George Regensburg. When he spoke with me, I always felt that I had his complete attention. His ability to focus that attention made me feel special. He made me feel good about myself. So in a way Charisma is the ability to inspire awe or admiration in someone else and / or the ability to make someone else feel special.

Is Charisma Hardwired?

According to Von Hippel’s research there probably are aspects of Charisma that are more hardwired:

  • Thinking speed – What I describe as the ability to process information and respond quickly
  • Divergent Response – Von Hippel describes it as the ability to come back with an unexpected answer or a surprising association.

There doesn’t seem to be a great deal I can do about those qualities. I can’t see myself turbocharging my thinking speed or somehow becoming the reincarnation of Robin Williams. 

But there are other aspects of Charisma that can be developed. Many of the behaviors can be learned. Sure, some people have more of a natural talent for it, but we can all learn how to be more Charismatic. The people we see as being Charismatic today, probably weren’t always so. George Clooney is the personification of Charisma. Charming, articulate and with a presence that commands attention. But I remember seeing George Clooney early in his career as Booker Brookes on that 90’s sitcom Roseanne. He was pretty much the antithesis of Charisma at that point in his life! You can’t tell me Charisma isn’t a learned behavior.

How To Develop Your Personal Charisma

I want to offer 5 abilities that you can learn and develop to become more Charismatic. Each of the abilities has qualities and skills associated with it. Because this is a Post – and not a book –  I’m going to limit myself to describing the “what” and not the “how” of each ability.

  1.  Be Aware Of And In Control Of Your  Internal State

Charisma develops from the inside – out. What I mean by that is that it starts on the inside with our beliefs and emotional controls. When we have it right on the inside, only then can we act and behave Charismatically on the outside. The way we manage our internal state is a prerequisite for Charismatic behavior. Our emotions make up a large part of that internal state. They have a tremendous impact on how we experience and interact with the rest of the world. Being aware of what we are experiencing emotionally gives us the opportunity to choose a more functional emotion. Instead of being angry I can choose to be motivated. Instead of feeling upset because of something a colleague has said, I can reframe my understanding of their behavior and respond more constructively.

A quote by Bishop Fulton Sheen says it perfectly:

“Each of us makes his own weather, determines the color of the skies in the emotional universe which he inhabits.”

Each of us has the ability to choose our emotional response. Learn how to choose a functional, useful response.

  1. Be Present

Charismatic people have a presence about them. Being present – in the moment – is an essential ingredient to developing that presence. Being Present is about maintaining a moment by moment awareness of our internal thoughts, sensations and feelings as well as the external environment – the people & activities – that we are interacting with. Being present in the moment is critical for Charisma in that enables us to truly focus our attention. When I was a young second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, General P.X Kelly (He would later become the Commandant of the Marine Corps) came to talk to my battalion. I happened to be sitting in the front row for his remarks. When he made eye contact with me, I felt a jolt. It was as if he was speaking only to me. Focus. Presence.

  1. Be Confident

Being confident begins with knowing who you are and being comfortable in your own skin. It’s amazing how important self-awareness is, isn’t it? Being confident on the inside doesn’t always equate to appearing confident on the outside, but sometimes there is actually a reciprocal effect. In other words acting confident on the outside can lead to being more confident on the inside. So what are some of the behaviors of confidence?

  • Engage in positive self talk internally
  • Have the courage to speak your mind respectfully
  • Use positive language that demonstrates ownership and control like “I will” and “I can” instead of “I have to “I can’t” or “If only”
  • Be proactive; initiate contact and take action
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm
  • Trust yourself
  1. Practice Charismatic Nonverbal and Paraverbal Behaviors

We humans seem hard-wired to take in more of, and place more importance on, the body language and tone of the people we are interacting with, than on the actual words they use. It runs counter to our fantasies of living in a logical, rational world, but we’ve been depending on our ability to decode body language and tone of voice for our survival much longer than we’ve had access to the spoken or written word.

Study after study emphasize the importance of body language and tone of voice, and new technology has made it possible to monitor and prove it outside the lab. Dr Alex Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Media Lab have done multiple experiments in call centers where, using wearable devices, they have been able to track the tone of voice (not their actual words) and upper body movements of call center employees. They’ve developed algorithms that are able to accurately predict in seconds the likelihood of a sale simply based on tone and body language. Nonverbals and paraverbals matter. A lot!

The question is which ones lead to perceptions of Charisma? According to Olivia Fox Cabane in her book The Charisma Myth:

  • Power – Some of how we perceive power is contextual – how others interact with the person, their status in the organization. But much of our perceptions come from the  tone and nonverbals. Handshake, posture, tone of voice, attire, eye contact, and gestures can all create a perception of power.
  •  Warmth – Warmth is about how others perceive our intentions towards them. Do they see us as having their interests? As having goodwill and being benevolent? Saying you’ve got their back isn’t enough. Your tone and body language have to match the message. It’s difficult to fake. People see through the lack of authenticity.

 Perceptions of both Power and Warmth can lead to being seen as Charismatic. Wonderful if you are able to pull off both. But I’ve known Charismatic individuals who were certified jerks. So either Power or Warmth may be its own, separate pathway to Charisma.

  1. Use The Language Of Charisma

Language may not be sufficient on its own, but when married with the right internal state and body language, the words you use can touch emotions and create connections.

  • Frame your ideas for your audience. Know their issues and hot buttons.
  • Use analogies to create a connection between your idea and their experience. Metaphors and analogies create an instant understanding and help the other person to experience what you want them to experience.
  • Tell a story to connect emotionally. Think emotions don’t matter? Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people with lesions in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they were normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. They also had something else in common. They weren’t able to make decisions. Emotions are at the core of who we are. They affect all of our decisions.

 Why You Should Care About Charisma

Well, there you have it. Five abilities that you can practice and develop to become more Charismatic.

Charisma isn’t just about showing off or having the spotlight. It’s a behavioral tool for getting things done. Would you like your good ideas to be heard and acted on? The more Charismatic you are, the more people will pay attention to what you have to say. If you are a manager or aspire to leadership, influencing others is an important part of your job. Charisma is influence. And regardless of what role you play within your organization, wouldn’t you like to have more impact? Working on these five abilities can help. They seem doable to me. I mean, if George Clooney could learn it, why not you or I?


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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