When Prince finished a showcase performance in a small Minneapolis movie theater on January 7, 1979, the Warner Records representatives walked out shaking their heads. Prince couldn’t believe it. Not ready for a tour? How was he supposed to sell any records?
But the label believed its new artist wasn’t a good enough performer to make a tour profitable. Prince was an excellent musician, they knew, but he lacked charisma. He needed to develop the ability to get people excited about his music by getting excited about him. Instead of signing off on a concert schedule, they sent him back to the studio to record a second album.
Prince made the album and, propelled by the success of its first single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” it entered the Billboard charts. Finally, Warner saw enough momentum to risk sending the still-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,” James later recalled. At first, anyway.
Prince began the tour with no knowledge of how to engage the crowd. But he was determined to improve, and he did. He schooled himself on how to be more charismatic on stage. He adopted the tactics of 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 audiences, leading call-and-response chants, wowing them with dance moves, even flipping the microphone. Fans were so riled up by Prince’s performances, James felt overshadowed.
How did Prince get that good? By decoding—and mastering—the communication strategies that constitute a charismatic rock performance.
A team of management scholars headed by John Antonakis of the University of Lausanne Business School decided to do the same with workplace charisma. They broke it down to a few concrete, learnable strategies, which they then taught to a group of randomly-selected middle managers through a five-hour group workshop and 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 on the job than before the intervention.
Most advice for improving charisma consists of vague prescriptions like, "Show confidence.” But while it’s true that confidence increases perceptions of charisma, it's hard to fake. So is warmth, another common denominator of charismatic people. But the following tactics identified by Antonakis and colleagues are relatively easy to learn, adopt, and implement:
Prince is now one of pop’s greatest performers. He believed that charisma could be learned—and he proved it. And like him, you can learn to have a more powerful effect on others.
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