How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Keys to Charisma

How to gain credibility and avoid getting snookered by a smooth operator

Jay “The Great” Gatsby devoted an hour a day to “practicing elocution, poise, and how to attain it.”

Whether to ensure your substance is valued, to compensate for lack of substance, or to avoid others using charisma to snow you, it helps to know charisma’s ingredients:

Charisma’s ingredients

Posture

Head straight—It may sound atavistic but the old deportment exercise of walking straight enough for a book to balance on your head may be worth trying.

Use The Obama Chin: Note how—especially when he is making a controversial point—he raises his chin slightly but not so much that it makes him look conceited.

Shoulders back, down, and equal height to each other.

Back straight.

In sum, stand straight but relaxed, not rigid.

Demeanor

Calm. No fidgeting or nervous mannerisms. Be particularly vigilant when you’re feeling impatient.

Maintain eye contact roughly three-fourths of the time. More looks weird, less looks like you don’t care about the person.

Interrupt rarely.

Use precise vocabulary but don’t use uncommon words merely to impress.

Be polite. Don’t curse. Offer simple kindnesses. For example, I recall Robert Scott, President of Adelphi University welcoming me into his office and rather than having his secretary pour the coffee, he did it. It was the smallest act but it's years later and I still remember that.

Gait. 

Stride but don’t rush. It’s especially important for older people to walk crisply. 

Voice

Use a moderate pace, occasionally slowing down or even pausing for emphasis. Fast talkers are viewed as dishonest and/or out of control, and they’re harder to understand.

Use the lower part of your voice’s natural pitch range. In both men and women, that’s viewed as more credible. But don’t force yourself below your natural range—you don’t want to sound gravelly.

Use a mildly positive tone. Too chirpy and you sound like Pollyanna, too sober and you seem curmudgeonly. Moderate confidence and optimism is what most Americans deem charismatic.

Use moderately loud volume as your baseline and lower and raise the volume to emphasize key words and create drama. But be careful not to sound like an actor. Spencer Tracy’s advice to actors, “Never let ‘em catch you acting.”

In sum, aim to sound calm and confident. Watch the senators and testifiers on C-SPAN. Even if they're talking about terrorist attacks, their demeanor is measured.

Clothes.

As Polonius said to Laertes, “Clothes make the man,” The woman too. Charismatic clothes are not trendy but timeless designs, well-color-coordinated and accessorized.

Is the effort worth it?

I’m agnostic on whether it’s worth all that effort to gift-wrap yourself. After all, it should be all about what’s in the package. Yet people of great substance may make less of a difference than lesser lights who exude more charisma. On the other hand, focusing so much on your packaging may feel oily. Personal choice.

But it’s certainly worth being alert to others who seem persuasive to you. Are you being persuaded by their steak or their sizzle?

Marty Nemko is profiled in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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