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:
- Use metaphors. You use metaphors whenever you compare your group 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. Paul McCartney, for example, introduces many live songs with an anecdote about the person the song is about. Others 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 others to 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 group. And 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 he's 68 years old, 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 others know that 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 then-keyboard player Jimmy Jam, Prince insisted that all band members sing harmony and dance while they played. “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 because 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 do this, too: Madonna contrasts herself with Lady Gaga, singing “She’s not me!” on her MDNA tour. And Lady Gaga contrasts herself with performers who lip sync.
- Use lists. Lists boost 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 rules will affect us in three major ways,” you position yourself as an expert on an unknown topic.
- Use rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions draw other people in: “Is everyone having a good time tonight?” 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 a vocal tone that demonstrate passion leave more memorable impressions, whether on a stage or around a meeting table.
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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