Prince couldn’t believe it. Not ready for a tour? How was he supposed to sell any records? But when he finished his showcase performance in a small Minneapolis movie theater on January 7, 1979, the Warner representatives walked out shaking their heads. Their new artist wasn’t a good enough performer to make the tour profitable. Prince was an excellent musician, but he lacked charisma. He needed to develop the ability to get people excited about his music by getting excited about him. They sent him back to the studio to record a second album.
Prince made his second album and, thanks to the success of its first single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the album entered the Billboard charts. Finally there was enough momentum for Warner to risk sending the awkward performer on the road. A lucky break came when singer Rick James, of “Super Freak” fame, invited Prince to open for him on his 1980 Fire It Up Tour.
“I felt sorry for him,” Rick James later recalled. Prince began with no knowledge of how to engage the crowd. But he was determined to improve, and he did. He carefully schooled himself on how to be more charismatic on stage. He adopted tactics practiced by performers he admired, including James himself. Prince believed that charisma could be practiced and perfected. And he was right.
By the end of that tour Prince commanded his audiences, leading call and response chants, wowing them with his dance moves, and flipping the microphone. They were so riled up by Prince’s performances, James felt overshadowed.
How did Prince get that good? By decoding the communication strategies that constitute a charismatic rock performance. And mastering them.
A team of management scholars headed by John Antonakis from the University of Lausanne Business School decided to do the same with managerial charisma. They broke it down to a few concrete and learnable communication strategies. They then taught these strategies to a group of randomly-selected middle managers. The managers received a five-hour group workshop followed by a one-hour individual coaching session. Three months later, 360-degree evaluations revealed that the managers who had received the training were perceived as more charismatic, more competent, and more trustworthy than before the intervention.
Most advice on improving charisma entails vague prescriptions such as “show confidence.” It’s true that confidence increases perceptions of charisma. But confidence is hard to fake. So is warmth, another common denominator of charismatic people. But the tactics identified by Antonakis and colleagues are relatively easy to learn and implement:
Use metaphors. You use metaphors whenever you compare your team to an army on the march or a sports team. Lady Gaga uses metaphor when she refers to her fans as “Little Monsters.” Prince invoked a powerful metaphor when he appeared on television with the word “slave” written across his cheek. Metaphors are charismatic because they simplify and stir people’s emotions and imagination.
Use stories and anecdotes. Personal stories can be used to great effect, especially stories of early struggles and challenges and how you overcame them. Rock stars use stories to make a stronger connection between their audience and their music. For example, Paul McCartney introduces many of his live songs with an anecdote about the person the song is about. Other musicians tell stories about things that happened to them in the town hosting the show.
Show moral conviction. Moral significance makes your message more meaningful. By appealing to the “right thing to do,” you reinforce core shared values and stir other people toward action. Rock stars display moral conviction to strengthen their bond with their audience. U2 had fans march around the stage with pictures of then-imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi on their 360-degree Tour. Madonna printed “Pussy Riot” on her back during her MDNA tour in support of the imprisoned Russian musicians. Late Beastie Boy Adam MCA Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom concerts, rallying fans and fellow musicians for Tibetan independence.
Express shared feelings as others. By revealing that you feel the same way as others do, you increase their identification with you. Statements such as “I am just as overwhelmed as you are” or “I am elated at this opportunity” strengthen your emotional connection. Musicians also use shared feelings. Neil Young, though 67, still acts like an “angry young man,” sharing feelings of disillusionment with his audiences.
Set high expectations and communicate confidence. By expecting much from others and yourself, you inspire those around you to be more than they are now. But it’s not enough to set high expectations. You have to let them know you believe in them. When Prince signed and produced the band The Time for Warner Brothers, he insisted that they improve their stage show. According to keyboard player Jimmy Jam, Prince insisted that all band members sing harmony and dance while they played their instruments. “That’s what Prince did, time and again,” Jam said, “He taught us we could do things we’d never believed we could.”
Use contrasts to frame and focus messages. Contrasts are powerful rhetorical devices. They emphasize. Contrasting statements such as “Rather than counting how many hours you’ve put in, we care about how much value you create” or “Most companies are letting people go but we’re hiring” send a strong message. Rock stars use this too. Madonna contrasts herself with Lady Gaga, singing “She’s not me!” on her MDNA tour. Lady Gaga contrasts herself with performers who lip sync.
Use lists. Lists increase charisma because they give the impression of completeness. They send a message that you have a coherent understanding of an issue. For example, when you say “The new legislation impacts our company in three major ways,” you position yourself as an expert on an unknown topic.
Use rhetorical questions. “Is everyone having a good time tonight?” Rhetorical questions draw other people in. They also create anticipation. When you ask, “Where do we go from here?” you’ve got others hanging on every word.
Use nonverbal strategies to animate your words. By animating your body language, you engage others. Body gestures, facial expressions, and vocal tone that demonstrate passion leave more memorable impressions on others, whether on a rock n’ roll stage or around a corporate meeting table.
Prince is one of rock’s greatest performers. He believed that charisma can be learned and he proved it. Like Prince, you can learn to have a more powerful effect on others.
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