We often consider charisma to be a rare quality, bestowed on only a few lucky souls, special individuals who end up in highly-visible, highly-rewarding positions as politicians, CEOs, actors, and talk show hosts.
But that’s a myth, according to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth. Cabane contends that charisma is not an innate trait, reserved for A-listers. Instead, it’s a characteristic anyone can develop. Charisma can be learned because it has everything to do with a personal mindset, and the nonverbal behaviors associated with it.
Charisma may seem like a superficial quality at first glance. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that it is a more profound characteristic—a combination of presence, power, and warmth—and one that can deeply connect us with the people around us.
Following are key ideas from Cabane’s work that I find helpful when talking specifically with clients who desire to become more engaged public speakers. But charisma is for anyone who wants to increased their personal magnetism—and opportunities for success. It’s for those who want to have more meaningful and engaging interactions, and positively impact the lives of others.
Believe it or not, toddlers have charisma. These little creatures, wide-eyed and curious, can capture the attention of a roomful of adults without saying a word. Do you remember the last time one of these little guys captivated you? Did you wonder why what was? Obviously they’re super cute, but a lot of it has to do with presence. Toddlers are often fully in the moment, and there’s something magnetic about anyone who’s giving 100 percent of their attention and effort to what’s happening here and now.
Think of Michael Jordan’s presence during playoff games as his Chicago Bulls won consecutive NBA titles from 1991 through 1993. His focus on each game and every play was so contagious that his teammates were able to elevate their games as well. Millions wanted to see the Bulls win. It probably explains why Jordan’s line of athletic clothing continues to sell well for Nike almost 20 years later. Jordan is far from a toddler, but the similarity is his fully engaged presence.
We can quickly tell when someone is in the moment, and when they’re thinking about other things. Adults are frequently in a state of continuous partial attention. We aren’t fully engaged with our employees or co-workers, our children or spouses, or the grocery clerk.
To master the first part of charisma, then, you have to practice being present.
There are many practices to help you become more present and engaged in a given moment. One is to focus on your breathing. Wherever you are, feel the air entering through your nose and filtering into your lungs. Now attend to the feeling as you exhale. As the last bit of air leaves your lungs, note the sensation of your muscles relaxing all the way down to your fingers and toes.
Another practice to become more present is to make eye contact with those you talk to. We often think we’re looking our conversational partner in the eyes when really we’re looking at them in the “general eye area.” Take the time to note the color of their eyes. Are they deep brown or green-brown? Don’t give a hard stare, of course—that would be creepy. But warm, friendly eye contact lets your partner know you are present and interested in what they have to say.
In many cases, our body language reveals an apparent lack of interest. Our shoulders may be turned away, or we may be distracted by a stream of texts. This instantly tells the other person we aren’t fully present. So square up your body and shoulders to those you are conversing with, and look them directly in the eyes.
You don’t have to be fully present in each and every moment—that’s not realistic (or possible). But when you can, and when it’s important, make the most of your time with others, and let them know you’re present.
Power is defined in many ways but when it comes to charisma, it refers to the perception by others that you have agency and influence—that you can make things happen.
Some people are assigned power automatically as a result of their wealth, physique, or position of authority. But you don’t have to possess any of these things for people to see you as powerful. Perception of agency and influence are determined in large part by body language and other nonverbal cues, like posture, dress, and voice. Here are a few simple cues that can help communicate personal power:
You can probably think of other cues that increase the perception of personal power. But be aware that power-grabs through intimidation or deception will be short-lived. (Think of ex-President Nixon) Charisma is strongest when presence and power are combined with genuine warmth.
If power is the perception that you can make things happen, warmth is the perception that you will use that power for the good of others. Warmth, like presence, is hard to fake. We can appear polite with manners and a smile, but warmth comes from a deeper place than being pleasant. Most of us notice when we are in the presence of someone who has genuine affection for us.
Since we can’t really fake warmth, we must remove the barriers to feeling genuine warmth for others. The biggest barrier may be a lack of warmth toward ourselves. This is typical when we attach more credibility to the negative thoughts we have than the positive ones. A quick and helpful practice to develop warmth, according to Cabane, is to close your eyes and envision someone who would have great affection for you. This might be a historical figure like Jesus or Gandhi, or someone closer to home, like a grandparent or even a loving pet. Feeling their warmth and total acceptance can help you share those feelings with those around you.
Do you have it?
Consider the aspects of charisma you already possess: Do you have warmth for others and display a certain degree of power, but find you’re rarely in the moment? Do you have power in spades, but often let it overshadow your feelings of warmth? All of us possess charismatic traits in varying degrees. The secret to becoming more charismatic is to embrace the things you already do well, and work to improve the areas that may be limiting you.
Take a few minutes to note the behaviors and attitudes you’re good at and those you could work on. Consider people you believe are charismatic and note what they do that you find appealing. Then consciously spend time practicing these traits as you go through your workday and conversations with others. You’ll find that over time, these habits are likely to manifest in a more charismatic you.
Dr. Heidi Reeder is the author of COMMIT TO WIN: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals (2014, Hudson Street Press/Penguin), available at Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.