We’ve fleshed out a usable definition of charisma and broken it down into its parts. And hopefully, you’ve been able to zoom in on all those parts of charisma that you’re already getting right… and those that need a little more work. This leads us to the obvious next question: how do we get better?
First things first: your charisma won’t look like anyone else’s charisma. This makes sense – think of any famous charismatic people from history, and they’re all different from one another; Marilyn Monroe, Stalin and Steve Jobs were all enigmatic characters, but in very different ways! This is precisely what Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, found, i.e., that there are different types of charisma. She listed four general categories, but even within these groups, it’s easy to see the endless possible variations:
The focused charismatic
This is someone who places deep, undivided attention on others, and makes them feel like “the most important person in the room.” Talk show hosts build their brands on this kind of charisma, as do motivational speakers – and cult leaders! You’ll know this is your preferred charisma style if you’re often told you’re a good listener. Focus charismatics are people that know that the best way to shine is to show off others to their best. If you often find yourself in the guru role of guiding people to be the best they can be, this may be your strong area.
The visionary charismatic
Recall Riggio’s theory about emotional and social expressiveness – we are drawn to those who can move us to see their inspiring vision of the future, especially if they have the enthusiasm and energy to campaign for that vision. Think about Steve Jobs building a following devoted to his vision of the future, or Martin Luther King Junior’s rousing speeches. Innovators and creative people can excel at visionary charisma, too, since they need to convince others to buy into a vision that only they can see. If you’ve ever managed to get people rallied together on a passion project, and if your visions seem infectious, you might have this type of charisma.
The kind charismatic
Emotional connection is powerful stuff – think of the Dalai Lama and how profoundly he influences people without conventional trappings of wealth and power. He does so purely on an emotional level, with genuine warmth and compassion. If you’re a person who can drastically elevate situations with kindness, mercy, empathy and benevolence, this form of charisma may be your strongest.
The authoritative charismatic
Finally, a more classic picture of a charismatic leader – like Stalin or Hitler, people with this style of influence use power and status to position themselves as authorities, experts or leaders. Such people seem to naturally command control, and effortlessly lead others. Do you frequently find that other people defer to your judgment or put you in charge of important tasks? You might be better at exuding this kind of charisma than the other types.
Now, this isn’t to say that these are the only types. If you think of famous charismatics from history, you’ll find many that don’t fit the mold. Some may inspire and lead people because of their bravery and strength (sporting heroes; those who beat the odds after disease or injury), some may captivate and enthrall people with immense beauty, grace or sex appeal (the starlets from Hollywood’s Golden Era), others may capture people’s admiration through humor, creativity or originality (Robin Williams’ comic genius could hit on an emotional level) and others may garner attention because they’re moral or even spiritual crusaders (think of how Greta Thunberg commanded a room with her righteous indignation about climate change).
What about you? You may not yet feel confident in your own charismatic abilities, but you’re probably beginning to get a sense for the style of that potential charisma, according to your own personality, values and experiences. The lesson here is that you shouldn’t worry too much if you don’t quite see yourself in the conventional descriptions of “charismatic leader” – you can be an engaging, fascinating person with a massive presence in a room, in a way that’s all your own!
Fox Cabane’s approach
Olivia Fox Cabane’s model of charisma is pretty simple. She suggests that there are just three main components:
Power is here defined as the capacity to impact others, while presence is the ability to be fully engaged and attentive to the moment. Finally, warmth is about perceived goodwill or benevolence, or the degree to which people believe you will use your power and presence in their best interest. Again, all three of these are primarily emotional and about how people feel – charisma is not rational!
We can recognize these factors as analogous to the influence, presence and affability we discussed in the last chapter. From Cabane’s point of view, different charisma styles vary in their relative proportions of these three special ingredients. For example, authoritative charismatics tend to blow everyone out of the water when it comes to power and presence, but tend to be a little weaker on warmth. Kind and focused charismatics excel in emotional warmth but may lack a little in the power department.
Once you have an idea of your current charisma quotient, and a few clues on your personal style, you have two options for improving yourself:
1. You can lean into your unique style and amplify it
2. You can balance out by cultivating those aspects you lack, so you’re more rounded
Either way, always keep in mind that charisma is most powerful when it’s personal and genuine, so keep checking in with your authentic values, the things that fire you up, and your natural gifts. With that in mind, let’s look at some practical exercises to start tapping into your inner charm. Use these the next time you’re heading into a meeting, going on a date, spending time with friends or family or speaking in public.
Exercise 1: Make yourself comfortable
We’ve seen that charismatic people are confident and have presence. They trust in themselves and their message, and they unapologetically take up space in the room. On a very basic level, though, confidence = comfort. It means being at home in your own skin, at ease with others, and comfortable in the world in general. This is why people advise to “walk into a room like you own it.” Because when you are comfortable, you can relax and expand your awareness outwards to engage emotionally with others. When you’re uncomfortable, every fiber of your being will communicate that, and act as a barrier to your power, presence and warmth.
Start simple and think about what you’re wearing. It’s infinitely better to wear something you’re genuinely comfy in rather than a nice outfit that’s too scratchy, too tight, too restrictive or too awkward. For Cabane, physical and mental discomfort are the biggest obstacles to building charisma. And physical tension will manifest as social and emotional tension. Think also about your general physical wellbeing. Ensure that you’re not hungry or thirsty, tired, ill or too hot/cold. If you’re going to be outside, plan ahead to make sure you’re not distracted by the sun glaring in your eyes, or the wind blowing your hair around, or the wrong footwear.
Before you head out to a social interaction, pause for a moment and check in with yourself, body and mind. Remind yourself that how things look is not as important as how they feel. A silk tie or a gorgeous evening gown might be conventional symbols of style and good taste, but if they make you feel bad, then that is what you will transmit socially. Make sure that your physical situation supports you and allows you to express yourself freely, with minimal distraction. If something is getting in the way, get rid of it.
Exercise 2: Use ritual and visualization
Being charismatic is a state of mind. And just like an athlete needs to warm up before a big game or race, you need to warm up emotionally and psychologically before you wow everyone with charm. To extend the metaphor, if you jump into a marathon without stretching beforehand, you’re going to be creaky and potentially injure yourself. Likewise, if you just jump into a challenging social situation without any thought or planning, you’re going to fumble.
Ritual can be the perfect “social warm up.” Not only does it allow us to get into the right mindset, but the mere fact of us planning ahead, taking charge and paying deliberate attention to our strategy will make us feel more in control and more confident. Remember that charisma is a social game, and the best players are those that take it seriously!
What kind of ritual is best? That depends on the state of mind you’re trying to cultivate.
Imagine an important job interview coming up and wanting to dazzle your interviewers. It’s a sales position, so you need to display both authoritative and focused charisma to charm the interviews and show them you know how to do the job. Truthfully, you’re feeling nervous and unsure of yourself, so you know that you’re going to need to demonstrate immense social and emotional control.
Hours before the interview, you start psyching yourself up. You listen to energizing music you know always puts you in a good mood. You run over a few mantras and affirmations to focus your mind. You plan your outfit and practice a few responses in a mirror. Finally, you spend time in active visualization. This could go a few different ways: you might imagine in detail how you want the interview to go, seeing yourself smiling, confidently taking charge of the room, and mentally rehearsing your posture, tone of voice and overall attitude.
You could also visualize someone you admire and who demonstrates the mindset you’re trying to convey. You could picture being that person, as though you’re temporarily using their persona as a mask to give you confidence. What would that person say and do in this situation? You could also use more abstract visualization, for example, imagining in vivid detail that all the stress is leaving your body in the form of literal negative words that float away off the surface of your skin, while a warm glow comes up from the ground and fills you up with energy, conviction and confidence. After the visualization, you imagine that this warmth stays with you, and that you carry it into the interview like a powerful talisman or magic spell. Speaking of talismans, maybe you have a lucky charm or special ritual that helps make the occasion feel auspicious – you wear a sentimental accessory, treat yourself, light a candle, say a prayer or plan to do something rewarding afterwards.
Exercise 3: Be present, build presence
Fox Cabane has a slightly different take on the idea of presence. For her, a person builds presence when they themselves are… present. This means being fully anchored in the moment, rather than having your attention elsewhere. The more present you are, the more genuinely you can engage others, respond sensitively to minute changes in the conversational flow, and observe others’ emotional states. It’s also far easier to be felt as warm if you are present, focused and paying attention to the person in front of you!
If you guessed that mindfulness practice will help with presence, then you guessed right. Anxiety can kill your charismatic aura because it takes you out of the moment – and the moment is exactly where the people you need to connect with are! Mindfulness is a tool that can help you reduce anxiety and boost awareness whether you practice it alone, in preparation for a social situation, or in that situation as it unfolds.
Again, the way you use mindfulness depends on your aims. Consider the following examples.
A person trying to improve their warmth and affability realizes that judgment gets in the way of them connecting with people. They try a “loving kindness” meditation every morning, where they practice extending compassion and understanding to everyone. Sitting quietly and with focus, they imagine a person they love, and focus on this feeling of acceptance and warmth. Then, they imagine someone they only like, but practice feeling this same warmth for them, too. Next, they imagine someone they are neutral about, and so on, until they reach a person they actively dislike. They work hard to find feelings of kindness for them, and for the fact that they are human beings who deserve compassion and respect regardless.
While such a person may find that this practice generally improves their outlook and makes them more tolerant and accepting people, another might simply commit to finding little “windows” of awareness in every social interaction. Pausing, coming to the present and reminding themselves to be aware of their body and breath in the moment, they become more relaxed and dynamically engaged. Perhaps they notice that their voice or body language is conveying stress, so they consciously choose to loosen up. Perhaps they realize they’re hogging the conversation and graciously decide to let the other person take the stage for a while.
One great way of building presence is to take your time. Anxiety, lack of presence, and rushing all go hand in hand. If you find yourself feeling tense in a moment, just pause. Breathe. Anchor in the present and in your 5 senses. What can you smell? See? Taste, even? Slow down and just get comfy in the moment. It’s usually our stressful ruminations about how we are in social situations that derail us, and not the situation itself. Anchor in the moment and let these ruminations drift away. Finally, put your attention squarely on the other person – don’t let your mind wander, and don’t get distracted by your phone.
Exercise 4: Take care
This is an extension of the previous exercise. When you pause, you give yourself the chance to act deliberately rather than reactively. You stop being at the mercy of knee-jerk reactions and start to act consciously – congratulations, this is the beginning of that elusive quality called grace and poise! For example, if somebody says something that catches you off guard and embarrasses you a little, don’t immediately blush and blurt out something that makes you sound defensive. Rather, pause and think, “how do I want to play this?” and then choose to laugh it off, deflect attention by saying something amusing or graciously thank the person for their comment, completely changing the energy of the interaction. But you can only do all this if you’re aware enough to pause in the first place.
Every choice you make in a social interaction matters. Your body language, your tone of voice, your word choice, your facial expression. Rather than being intimidated by this fact, use it to your advantage – see all of these as colors on a palette to paint the image you want to paint. Don’t leave anything to chance. Take care with how you dress, how you speak, and how you’re holding yourself in conversations. Especially take care of what is happening with people around you and your effect on them. Again, we’re in the realm of social control, which cannot be achieved without a degree of mindful awareness.
Pause before you respond – just a few seconds, and you’ll seem more poised and put together. Instead of saying “um” simply keep quiet while thinking of what to say. If you are confident enough to take your time speaking, people will usually respond in kind and pay more attention to your words. Finally, be careful about your word choice, and consider your audience. It’s always a good idea to match your tone, word choice, volume and pitch to theirs if you’re unsure.
Howard Friedman’s approachably express themselves. In a:
Whichever form it takes, communicating with spiritedness, energy, passion, eloquence and vibrant gestures all make a person far more charismatic. Remembering that charisma is about impacting others emotionally, it’s easy to see why expressiveness is so important – it allows us to more easily affect others, leading and captivating and inspiring them. Words matter, but when they’re paired with nonverbal expression, they can be charismatic. It’s as though charming people are fluent in two languages: the obvious superficial one and the more primal, unspoken and nonverbal one that captivates us more easily.
The ACT is pretty simple: there are ten statements that participants are asked to respond to, noting the extent to which they agree. You can try it yourself by seeing the degree to which the following statements apply to you (note that these are inspired by several different versions of the test):
When I hear good music, I can’t help but move my body
When I laugh, it’s jovial and buoyant, and everyone can hear me
When I’m on the phone, my mood and feelings come across loud and clear
In conversations with friends, I am tactile and easily touch or hug people
I don’t mind when a group of people notice me or watch me
I usually have an obvious facial expression, and am seldom neutral
People often tell me I’d make a good actor or actress
I’m not shy and don’t mind being the center of attention
I know how to look at people seductively if I want to
I’ve always been good at playing games like charades or miming
Strangers often think I’m younger than I am
The more strongly you agree to the above statements, the more likely you’re perceived as charismatic. These statements essentially measure your nonverbal affective expressiveness. Let’s look more closely at what this expressiveness actually looks like in the real world, and how you can go about cultivating some of it in yourself.
People are drawn to and enthralled by displays of health, vigor, and liveliness in a very primal sense. Think of how people can’t tear their eyes away from a talented performer, a passionate dancer or singer, or someone throwing their heart and soul into something special. We’re attracted to people that seem to be filled to the brim with passion and energy – perhaps we hope that some of it will rub off on us!
Before human beings invented language, they communicated with their bodies. In fact, you could say that movement is a more primitive and immediate form of communication. Kinesthetic responsiveness is about expressing yourself emotionally through your body’s movement. Boring and unengaging people seem to be dead from the neck down. They slump and appear stagnant – their bodies don’t seem to extend or expand much into the space around them. In contrast, charismatic people are embodied, and their enthusiasm manifests in all of them. They move. They gesture. They shift in their seats, tilt their heads, or flap their hands around madly when telling an amusing story.
DO THIS: Stay in shape. No really! If you’re healthy and physically active, you’ll be more confident and at ease in your own skin, lighter on your feet and more mobile. As you speak to anyone, remember that your body is also constantly sending a message. Do you want that message to be, “zzzz, I’m half asleep…”?
Expressive and contagious laugh
A laugh is a powerful thing. It can make people fall in love, put them at ease, make them trust you… it can make them laugh. Why is a genuine, juicy laugh so infectious? Well, think about what a laugh is: a simple, direct expression of joy. It shows a person that, just for one unguarded moment, is genuinely expressing how they feel. Also, it’s a potent communication that you’re happy, resilient, healthy and able to enjoy yourself. People who are miserable, anxious or in the habit of denying themselves pleasure are not attractive, and they’re not charismatic. But when you hear a person laugh from their core, something happens to you – you want to be a part of it! You’re drawn in closer. All barriers and conventions temporarily fall away, and a moment of intimacy is possible.
DO THIS: Commit to never stifling a laugh. Be free and ebullient with your joy and let it overflow when you feel it, without a second thought for how you look or for social appropriateness (within reason, of course… bursting out laughing at a funeral is probably not a good idea). You could even practice by watching funny videos or comedy, and letting yourself laugh openly. The next time you’re in company and want to laugh, don’t force or fake anything: genuine and spontaneous joy is like charisma gold dust – don’t hide it!
Have you noticed how pets and other animals don’t care about the words you say to them, but seem to respond only to the tone and pitch of your voice? Human animals are no different! Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all respond to the emotion we hear in other people’s voices, regardless of the words they’re using. If your words are saying one thing and your voice is communicating another, people will perceive the mismatch, and it will put them on edge; they may interpret the discrepancy as insincerity. This is why it’s important to communicate with your whole body – and your voice is an especially important part of your body.
DO THIS: Never speak carelessly. Instead, think about the emotion you’re trying to convey and make sure your voice expresses that. Through your tone of voice alone, let people know that you’re excited to talk to them, that your conversation brings you pleasure, and that you’re fascinated by what they’re saying. An old trick for when you’re on the phone: even though people can’t see you, smile anyway. They will be able to hear it in your voice.
When we communicate, we are reaching from our world out into the void to touch someone else’s world. And the most obvious and concrete way to do this is to… literally touch them. Clearly, this comes with some caveats. Touch needs to be appropriate to work – lightly brushing someone’s hand, upper arms or shoulder in the course of events can bridge distances, so to speak, and make the interaction feel more real and present. If touch is pushy or awkward, though, it can prove disastrous.
DO THIS: With people you don’t know very well, communicate warmth and presence by touching them just once or twice in a conversation, on the shoulders, hands or lower arms. Naturally weave the touch into another expressive gesture, for example, a light touch when you are indicating “you” or a gentle nudge on the shoulder as you walk through a door to suggest they go first. The trick is to be casual and comfortable in yourself as you do so. If you can’t touch without being stiff or uncomfortable, avoid it for a while.
DON’T DO THIS: A caveat here – touch will be received differently depending on whether a man or woman is toucher or touchee. As a rule, like it or not, men can get away with far less touch than women can, and it’s usually better to touch someone of the same sex to avoid misunderstanding.
Relax into being in the limelight
If you’re shy or an introvert, having all eyes turned on can feel pretty scary. But charismatic people soak up attention easily and with pleasure. Being put on the spot can be nerve-wracking, but even if you’re not a natural performer, you can fake it somewhat. Protesting, being awkward or shyly trying to wriggle out of attention actually make things worse. A lot worse! So just relax. Something to remember is that when people turn their attention to you, their intentions are usually benign. Watch a nervous newbie comedian on stage for the first time. Usually, the crowd is generous with their laughs anyway – they want the performer to succeed and feel comfortable.
DO THIS: Use humor. You don’t have to suddenly think of something witty to say on the spot. Just smile, relax, and breathe. Whatever you do, don’t make a big deal of any awkwardness in the moment, or you’ll amplify it. Maybe playfully make fun of yourself or the situation. If everyone has turned to look at you after a slip and fall, just get up, smile, take a bow and say, “ta da!” It’s not original, it’s not even all that funny, but it puts people at ease and will make them smile.
Communicate with your face
While you might find an inscrutable and mysterious person interesting for a little while, you’ll soon get bored of how little they’re revealing of themselves. Communication is about being engaged – people want to know that they’re affecting you, that you have an opinion, and that you are alive and responsive. Think about being on a date; it’s excruciating to be with an unreadable person, and not know how they feel about you. It’s far more attractive to be with someone who is letting you know loud and clear where they are emotionally.
DO THIS: Speak less, and emote more. It could be as simple as smiling and nodding instead of saying “yes” or lifting a single eyebrow when someone asks your opinion of a movie. Expressing emotions via the face becomes easier the more you practice – look in the mirror and try to see how many different kinds of smiles you can make. Or, the next time you’re in a conversation, replace “uh huh” sounds with expressions that mirror or respond to the speaker’s.
Change your attitude to strangers
Public speaking coach Sims Wyeth did a survey and found that those who called themselves introverts actually prefer the company of extroverts. Trouble is, extroverts also prefer the company of extroverts! This suggests that it’s simply easier and more fun to be with someone socially outgoing and expressive. While there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, the truth is that it can put further distance between you and others, and limit the closeness, engagement and presence required for charisma.
DO THIS: Make the first move. Say hello to strangers first. This may seem scary, but it actually puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you more control over social interactions. Practice broaching the silence with new people, and you’ll see that the earlier you break the ice, the easier the interaction tends to be.
Flirt a little
Friedman believed that charismatic people are experts at using a “seductive glance.” While hard to describe, we all know this look when we see it! Sure, there is a strong link between being charismatic and being sexy, alluring or attractive to the opposite sex. But charismatic people are also masters at what could be called “platonic flirting.” They flirt with everyone—if we broaden our definition of “flirt.”
DO THIS: Practice platonic flirting – with family, friends, children, old people and people you don’t even like. Think back to how much razer focus, warmth and sparkle you’ve brought to romantic dates in the past, and then bring that dazzling (non-sexual) version of yourself into the everyday. Be generous and sincere in the compliments you give. Smile at people often and praise them. Laugh at their jokes. Basically, demonstrate that just being around them gives you pleasure. This makes people feel like a million bucks, and like they’re seen and appreciated. This kind of non-romantic “chemistry” is wonderful to see in action!
Ham it up
Finally, Friedman identified one form of emotional expressiveness that is the more fundamental precursor to body language: pantomime. Physically acting out a narrative is a brilliant and simple way to add color, life and dynamism to your stories, and to make you seem more relatable, more amusing and way more captivating. You can learn to do this by watching the pros: improv artists, comedians, clowns, impersonators and… two-year-olds, who are the reigning champions of the acting world.
DO THIS: The next time you’re relating a story to someone, gradually try to incorporate gestures, actions, voices and movements to add dimension. This can be subtle; for example, if you’re relating a discussion between two people, slightly move your position in space and change your voice and posture when you act out each person’s part. Make liberal use of dramatic pauses, facial expressions and gestures. It may seem silly, but imagine you’re telling the story to a group of excited toddlers and exaggerate.
Howard Friedman’s approach to charisma homes in on the emotional expressiveness aspect of charisma, and judging by his research, this may be the most significant factor when it comes to charming and engaging people.
It’s easy to imagine an emotionally expressive car salesman, stand-up comedian, preacher, politician or celebrity with a megawatt smile. But you may be starting to wonder: is there no room for those people who are quieter, calmer, more sophisticated, more refined, shy, reserved… or plain old timid?
A word on introversion
First, the bad news: charisma is about emotionally impacting others, and it’s almost impossible to do that if you’re not literally reaching out to others, taking the risk of showing yourself, and being interested in the people around you. Very few can manage to be aloof and dismissive of others and yet liked. So, if you consider yourself a naturally reclusive or introverted person, then there’s no question: you will have to come out of your comfort zone and play a role that may not feel comfortable at first – if you want to increase your charisma, that is.
But the good news? Extroverts have to do this work too. Many shy people falsely assume that extroverts find all this easy. A few do, but if you ask most social butterflies, they’ll tell you that they had to work on it. Sometimes constantly! Even the most confident and enigmatic person can sometimes feel vulnerable, crabby, unconfident, or socially terrified. The difference is they understand there’s no way around it: like anything in life, it takes consistent practice, humility and the willingness to learn.
There’s more good news, though. You don’t have to be an overbearing or fake loudmouth to be charismatic. You can keep your quiet, calm personality and still be alluring. “Extroverts sparkle, introverts glow.” Being naturally less gregarious is no excuse for not mastering warmth, sensitivity, good communication, listening skills, tact and expressiveness. In fact, there are a few aspects of charisma that you may be better equipped to master than your extroverted brethren! In our next chapter, we’ll look at two case studies that prove that charm comes in many flavors, and introversion/extroversion has very little to do with it.
• Olivia Fox Cabane explains how there are four charisma types according to the proportion of power, presence and warmth. The focused charismatic (who pays deep attention to others), the visionary charismatic (who communicates their infectious passion), the kind charismatic (who inspires with warmth and compassion) and the authoritative charismatic (who leads others with expertise and power).
• Depending on your goals, you can play up your natural charisma strengths or seek to balance out your weaknesses.
• To be socially and emotionally comfortable, plan ahead and make sure you’re physically comfortable, which will remove barriers to charismatic connection.
• Use ritual and visualization as a “social warm up.” Music, meditation, and affirmations can help you prepare.
• Build presence with mindfulness. Slow down, breathe and anchor in the senses. Pause before you respond, and take conscious care of every detail of the interaction, including your verbal and nonverbal expression, appearance, and behavior.
• Howard Friedman emphasized the affective, nonverbal expressiveness component of charisma.
• Communicate with all your body and laugh openly. Speak with a dynamic, varied voice that changes in pitch, tone and expression. Use touch to bridge distance and create warmth, aware that the rules differ for men and women.
• Speak less and emote more via facial expression. If you find yourself the center of attention, relax and don’t draw attention to awkwardness, using humor to defuse tension. Use exaggerated, pantomime-like gestures and initiate contact with strangers. Finally, practice the art of “platonic flirting.”
• Introverts can be charismatic, but they must do so on their own terms.