There’s something about them. People with charisma are just so… appealing. They’re charming, they’re likable and they somehow make everyone gravitate towards them. Is it magic? Is it just a chemistry thing?
If you’ve ever wanted to be that person in the room with the most magnetic, captivating aura, then this book is for you. When we’re in the presence of charismatic people, it can be hard to say precisely why we’re so bewitched. Charisma can start to seem like something that you’re just born with… or not.
But thankfully, this kind of allure is not some mysterious power that only a few possess. It’s 100% a social skill that you can practice, even if you don’t quite see yourself that way now. Charisma is really a collection of different behaviors and attitudes that radiate a certain very attractive mindset to others. We’ll divide our “charisma crash course” into two main parts in the chapters that follow. First, you’ll learn how to develop your own unique brand of charm within yourself. Then, in part 2, you’ll learn to carry that aura out into the world and broadcast it to those you interact with.
With charisma, you’re more empathetic, more engaging, and a much, much better conversationalist. You’re interesting and interested. And because you’re witty and emotionally intelligent, people like you and trust you. It’s hard to imagine an area of life that isn’t improved with a little charisma – dating, work, friendships. Even chatting to strangers at a bus stop becomes an opportunity for winning people over with enchanting banter!
Before we dive in, though, let’s dispel one misconception: being charismatic is NOT about being loud, extroverted or cocky. In fact, by the end of this book, the hope is that you’ll see there are many ways to be charming, whether that’s being flashy and larger than life, or quietly confident and a little mysterious.
A practical definitionConveniently for us, in:
Affability broadly means that people are pleasant to be around and easily approachable. However you define it – warmth, pleasantness, friendliness – this is the quality that makes you think, “hm, I like this person!”
Influence is defined as leadership potential, “presence” and the ability to influence and persuade people.
Not only did the team discover that it was actually possible to measure these two traits, but also that people were fairly accurate at rating themselves – i.e. when self-ratings were compared to ratings by others, they were more or less the same. They created the General Charisma Inventory (GCI), which you can basically complete yourself right now:
Read the following statements and give yourself a rating from 1 to 5, with 1 for “strongly disagree” and 5 for “strongly agree.” The first three are about influence, while the latter three are about affability.
I am someone who…
• Has a presence in a room
• Has the ability to influence people
• Knows how to lead a group
• Makes people feel comfortable
• Smiles at people often
• Can get along with anyone
To score, simply add up the ratings for each, and take that value and divide it by 6. If you scored over 3.7, you can consider your charisma above average. Scored significantly lower than that? Don’t worry! It’s not as hard as you might think to work on these 6 criteria and boost your charm. Did you score low in influence, affability or both? Interestingly, how charismatic you are has nothing to do with your personality type or overall intelligence (it may have something to do with whether you’re male or female, though – more on that later).
So, let’s summarize: charisma is characterized by the ability to charm, persuade and attract others, and it contains two broad traits, affability and the power to influence. These two broad traits can be broken down into 6 smaller characteristics, such as presence and good rapport with others. Let’s take a closer look at the basic dos and don’ts of charisma.
Being more influential
Think of a person you consider influential. What are they like? Maybe you picture someone like Oprah Winfrey, who built a veritable empire for herself, and influenced millions of people worldwide. Or maybe you picture Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent resistance created an aura of decisiveness so powerful it influenced nations. Whoever you think of when you hear “influential,” that person is probably one thing: confident.
Influential people believe in themselves and communicate the things they’re passionate about, so much so that other people feel passionate and confident about those things, too! Think of the most famous political speeches in history and how their speakers could transmit their energy and enthusiasm to the crowd. It’s not ever about arrogance or narcissism, though. Instead, it’s about that person’s presence.
Picture someone walking into a room, head held high, smile on their face, body language open. They greet everyone in the room confidently, and when they speak, their voice is sure, crisp and clear. Immediately, they seem to take up a certain amount of space in the room. Compare this to someone who slinks in shyly, shoulders slumped, expression of apprehension all over their face. Without making eye contact, they greet one person and then shuffle off to a corner somewhere, speaking quietly, if at all. It’s obvious: this person simply takes up less room.
However, taking up more “space” is not just about being literally larger than life. People try to cheat with this and wear outrageous, attention-grabbing clothing or speak too loudly – this will catch people’s attention for a second, but is unlikely to hold it if there is no genuine confidence and gravity in your presence beyond the costume!
DO THIS: Before you walk into a room or start a conversation, literally stand tall and stretch your arms high over your head. Take deep breaths. Imagine a light at the center of your chest. This light is who you are, the best of you, and what you have to offer the world. Imagine proudly and courageously shining this light out when you move around the world, with open body language and a smile.
One way to immediately get into this open, optimistic posture is to imagine that the people you’re about to encounter are already your friends, and that you will be received warmly. Imagine that you’re meeting old, much-loved friends who are dying to see you. Carry that unguarded expectation and optimism into any new interaction.
DON’T DO THIS: If you have a core belief that certain people or situations are threatening, then this attitude will manifest in your expression, your posture and your voice. You will transmit an attitude (no matter how subtle or unconscious) or fearfulness, reluctance or hostility – and that will immediately destroy any chance of charisma. So, whatever you do, don’t enter into any interaction where you’re quietly thinking, “these people hate me.” This attitude will make you shrivel, shrink and fold into yourself, immediately taking up less space and losing presence in the room.
What about influencing others? Presence is one thing, but to encourage others to think or do certain things, you’ll need to have one important thing: energy. You have to not only believe in yourself (confidence, taking up space) but believe in what you’re saying. If you can genuinely muster enthusiasm and optimism for your point of view, people will be more attracted to it. If you’re non-committal? Others will respond in the same lukewarm way, if they pay attention at all.
DO THIS: Find your real passion, and speak fervently about it. You can’t fake enthusiasm. People can tell when they’re being manipulated or advertised to – but they love it when others are fired up with their own mission, and are following their own north star. They love that enthusiasm so much they want to follow that north star, too! Whether you’re trying to get people to do something or not, speak out about what matters to you (even if you will actually “lose” some people in the process!).
Passionate about animal rights? About good food? A sport? Have you always been zealous about a particular hobby, interest or view? Then say so! At the very least, be bold and confident in stating what you like and want. Don’t sit on the fence. Do you have an unusual preference or opinion? Share it proudly, without diluting your true feelings.
DON’T DO THIS: “Uh, I don’t know, what do you think?” Not very inspiring, right? Banish these words from your vocabulary. Even though you might feel that way inside, don’t second guess or self-doubt out loud. Charismatic people are relaxed, confident and sure of themselves. So, if you portray anxiety, uncertainty or doubt in the value of your ideas, you can expect others to do the same.
Also, make a point of not complaining, whining or expressing dissatisfaction about yourself. It’s the opposite of inspiring passion. Here’s a secret: people don’t really mind if others are wrong or different, so long as they are confidently, authentically so!
Finally, what about leadership? If you are confident and can speak clearly about your passions, then you will automatically find yourself in the position of leading others. The good news is that there is really no such thing as a “natural” leader – if you have a compelling and genuine vision, and you communicate that well to others, they will be inspired to follow.
DO THIS: Speak TO people and not AT them. What do they value? What do they want? How do they make sense of the world? Speak to your audience’s highest selves. When you talk to them, communicate so that you center their perspective, rather than your own. Make your vision so real for them they can taste it.
For example, if you’re part of a committee and you’re trying to get people to see the wisdom of a new plan you’re proposing, you might listen to the way they speak and reflect that back to them, using their words and not your own. You might adjust how you speak to frame the plan to align with their values and principles. “I know that you’re a family man, and you’re as concerned as I am about child safeguarding.”
DON’T DO THIS: Treat people as objects to be moved. Force and manipulation might work in the very short term but ultimately fail. You may have a brilliant idea, but if you force it on others with no respect for them, they won’t listen. Avoid appealing to your audience’s lowest selves – the part of them that responds from fear or hate or negativity. This will not be felt as influence, but manipulation. “Well, you have kids. Wouldn’t you feel really guilty if you let something bad happen to them?”
Being more affable
Many politicians are quite influential… but nobody likes them. Influence is only half of charisma – people need to like you. Many people who struggle with socializing fail to realize the most important part of being likeable: making other people feel good. It’s not about getting others to think you’re great; rather, it’s about making sure they feel comfortable, listened to, and respected. When people feel that they are liked in this way, then, as if by magic, they like you.
Being more affable is easy once you get out of your own head. The easiest (almost too easy) way to be more affable is simply to smile. Smile as often as you can. Remember that people cannot see into your inner experience – they can only see what you’re broadcasting on your face. So be aware of your facial muscles and what they’re communicating. Check in occasionally and consciously remind yourself to loosen your jaw, unclench your forehead muscles and gently lift the corners of your mouth.
DO THIS: You don’t have to grin from ear to ear constantly. But encourage yourself to smile more, especially if you’re someone who considers themselves a little pessimistic or grumpy! You can practice genuine smiles by thinking of things that make you happy. It’s a trick photographers use: they ask their models to imagine someone they love, or remember a hilarious moment. They can’t help but smile or laugh. A smile doesn’t have to be enormous to have an effect – as long as it’s warm and genuine, it will have an effect.
Making other people feel comfortable is a big part of affability. It’s easy to imagine why:
Person A: Good looking, intelligent, accomplished, fascinating, and makes you feel at ease
Person B: Good looking, intelligent, accomplished, fascinating, and makes you feel like garbage
Person A has charisma… person B is just intimidating, or even an outright bully!
Putting other people at ease takes emotional intelligence and empathy (which we’ll cover at length in a later chapter). A certain degree of emotional and social maturity is required: charismatic people don’t see social interactions as a chance to boast or as a battleground in which they demolish their opponents. Rather, they genuinely like other people and enjoy interacting with them. Ask yourself honestly, do you enter conversations with a genuine desire to listen to what other people say? Do you approach other people with curiosity to learn what they could teach you?
The best way to put other people at ease and make them comfortable is to pay attention to them. Listen to what they’re saying (not what you think they’re saying!) and show that you value and respect that perspective, rather than just barging in to share your own. You will win people’s trust and admiration if you treat them with care.
DO THIS: Remember details. How do you feel when people don’t spell your name right or completely forget what you told them in detail just yesterday? Unheard. A dazzling and interesting person who barely acknowledges your existence is not charismatic – they’re more like a self-involved diva or celebrity. Instead, make a point of listening with care to what you’re told. Remember facts that people tell you, and bring them up casually in later conversations. If you can do this and engage with others as though they’re genuinely the most fascinating person on the planet (in that moment, they are!), then you will instantly boost your appeal.
DON’T DO THIS: Interrupt. It’s something so easy and so tempting to do, and it so quickly destroys rapport. When you interrupt, you’re basically telling the other person, “What I’m saying is more important than what you’re saying.” Obviously, this will not make them feel comfortable. Wait a few seconds after they finish speaking before you speak. Beware of more subtle forms of interrupting, too. If you continually change the topic, ignore what’s been said, or deliberately steer the conversation to yourself over and over again, the effect is the same. Let go of any conversational agenda and let the other person take charge and steer things for a while.
Finally, charismatic people get along with everybody. This is important – they don’t just get along with those they like or those they’re similar to, but everybody. Two things can help you get on better with people, whoever they are: optimism and non-judgment.
Charismatic people are positive people. They’re solution oriented, resilient, and look on the bright side. They see the good in themselves (self-confidence) but also the good in others. They see conversations as opportunities for learning and connection, and challenges as invitations to improve. If you are constantly negative, you bring an entirely different energy to interactions. You have an aura of difficulty, resistance, opposition, or just plain old dissatisfaction. Who would be attracted to that? If you add judgment into this mix, things are even worse.
DO THIS: Express gratitude often and openly. Something magical happens when you demonstrate appreciation, and you’ll instantly come across as more positive. It can be a simple question of saying, “wow, here comes some beautiful rain! My garden is going to love all this water,” instead of complaining bitterly about the lack of sunshine. Even better if you can express gratitude for the other person, instead of criticism. Rather than dwelling on how weird you find someone, say instead, “That’s what I love about you, you’re not like anyone else I know!”
DON’T DO THIS: Judge. That includes yourself! Avoid gossiping or complaining about others, but especially avoid talking negatively about yourself. It may seem harmless (some people even believe that a good gossip session brings people together!), but it ultimately makes you look negative and insecure. Say something constructive or at the least keep criticisms to yourself.
And there you have it – we have demystified charisma and pinned it down to six very practical, very simple skills you can try today, in your very next conversation:
1. Open up your posture and take up space; assume that people are already your friends
2. Speak up about your passions and drop self-doubting language
3. Address people’s higher selves and their values to influence and win them over
4. Use happy memories to encourage yourself to smile more
5. Show people you’re paying attention by remembering conversational details, and never interrupt, to put them at ease
6. Express gratitude rather than criticism and judgment, to appear more optimistic
As you can see, none of the above require any magical powers or special talents – with a little effort and practice, they can all be measured, learnt and developed.
Zooming in on personal charisma
Ronald E Riggio is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California, and he’s been studying charisma for decades, particularly when it comes to leadership. For Riggio, personal charisma is basically a complicated mix of social skills that allows people to deeply affect others on an emotional level, primarily using communication. It’s not just that you possess a group of nifty skills, but that all the skills come together cohesively, making a deep impact on other people.
Whether on a social or emotional level, charismatic people are
2. sensitive to other people’s expression, and
3. able to control both of these masterfully, according to the context and their own needs
Emotional awareness and social intelligence are key here, and with enough practice, you can bring both skills together into one big, charming package. Let’s look at what Riggio calls the 6 foundational building blocks of charisma. Each is based on how well we send messages (expressiveness), receive them (sensitivity), or control ourselves.
You know who isn’t charismatic? A robot. Stoic, restrained or emotionless people may be read as cold and unengaged. Remember our definition: charisma is about making an emotional impact on people. You don’t do that with a list of rational arguments. You do that by expressing emotion yourself. Spontaneously and genuinely express how you feel. When you’re animated and energetic, you seem more alive, more intelligent and more engrossing. When you demonstrate that you can be moved, that you have an opinion, and that you’re dynamic and changeable, you appear more human and more trustworthy to others.
DO THIS: To be more expressive… use expressions. Allow your face to be animated. As you talk, imagine that all the sound is muted, or that your audience is hard of hearing, and you have to mime a little. Could an audience guess your meaning from your facial expression alone? Communicate with all of your body – use hand gestures and postures. Use a degree of mime and action to relate stories, change your voice to mimic someone else, and use movement to add color to anecdotes. Not sure how? Watch standup comedians with the sound off and look at how they use their bodies to express themselves.
DON’T DO THIS: Be boring in your speech. Instead, use colorful and inventive language. Be a little unexpected and fresh, describe things in unusual ways, or use unique turns of phrase. On a related note, steer clear of swearing – not because it’s vulgar, but because it’s uncreative! If you must be vulgar, at least find a novel way to do it…
Being a sophisticated communicator is not just about sending a clear message, but receiving other people’s messages, too. You simply cannot connect with people emotionally if you don’t even know what emotions they’re experiencing. You need to be able to accurately perceive other people’s emotions – and respond to what you see. This is the ability to notice when you’ve lost someone’s attention, when they’re feeling uncomfortable, or when you’re connecting with them. In other words, it’s empathy.
In a later chapter, we’ll look more closely at exactly how to improve empathy skills, but for the time being, it’s enough to know that empathy is nothing more than a heightened ability to truly perceive another person’s reality. You only need to pay attention. Truth be told, many of us are bad at this not because it’s difficult, but because we don’t actually take the time to ask ourselves what the other person is feeling. Becoming good at “reading people” takes time and practice.
DO THIS: Want to know what people feel? Ask them! The question alone already communicates a willingness to empathize, and that’s worth a lot. It can be very refreshing and attractive when someone says, “Can I just be really honest with you for a second?” Ask where they’re at emotionally, and then genuinely listen to the answer you receive, without judgment.
DON’T DO THIS: Make assumptions. Yes, empathy helps you read body language, but often, no single gesture or expression means anything; if you’re talking to a stranger, it’s difficult to find patterns in their behavior since you don’t have a “baseline” and there’s nothing to compare it to. It’s easier to just read the room! Pay close attention to how people respond to you in the moment, before you say or do the next thing. This stops you from getting carried away in a monologue or being insensitive to your listener’s emotional wavelength. It also gives you time to correct faulty assumptions.
Genuinely charismatic people are never out of control. They always seem to be aware of and in command of themselves, so they never end up losing their temper or indulging in emotional displays they’re later embarrassed about. But, this is difficult. How can we be “emotionally expressive” while also controlling our emotions? Don’t those contradict?
The truth is that charm and charisma do contain an element of artifice. While charisma may be spontaneous and genuine, it is never unaware. In other words, charismatic people know how to turn the charm on and off, as needed. They know how to “act” to a certain extent, downplaying certain emotions if necessary. For example, they can smile and relax even when they feel nervous, and stay quiet when they know it’s no use arguing. Emotional control allows people to stay ultra-calm even in the face of insults or chaos.
DO THIS: Get into the habit of slowing down to breathe. We can blurt things without thinking when we’re flustered or overwhelmed, but literally a second or two of deep breathing can center us and remind us that we’re in control of how we handle ourselves. Pause before you respond so you can gather yourself.
DON’T DO THIS: Get defensive. Ever. If you’re ever feeling in over your head, use humor. Playfully making fun of the situation or dropping in an unexpected quip can defuse tension. Respond to rudeness, mistakes or sudden setbacks (your own or other’s!) with lightness. Maintain your emotional “frame” and remind yourself that nothing and nobody can make you feel or behave in a certain way. Be less emotionally reactive by just brushing things off instead of getting flustered by them.
This refers to sociability and being able to engage and express yourself in social situations. It could mean holding your own in a social group, or public speaking with confidence. Social expressiveness is most often associated with extroversion, but it doesn’t need to be – even if you’re an introvert, it doesn’t mean you can’t articulate yourself confidently in social situations. This area may feel challenging for people who don’t find socializing easy, but the good news is that it improves with consistent practice.
DO THIS: Yes, it’s true that everyone says to “be yourself” and act natural, but for this social skill, it may work to do the opposite: act a little. Watch videos of talk show hosts, standup comedians, actors or public personalities you admire for their charisma. Watch what they do and copy them. Granted, you don’t want to base your entire identity on this persona, but it can be a great way to kick start your own innate charisma and give you some practice and confidence.
Consider signing up for a public speaking course, or joining an improv class, dance troupe or amateur drama group. Try standup comedy, an open mic night or simply speak up more in groups. You may be petrified at first, but practice really does make perfect. Frame the exercise as simply having a laugh rather than performing perfectly. You’ll lower the stakes and teach yourself not to let fear of failure get in the way.
DON’T DO THIS: Be a slob, i.e., careless with how you dress and present yourself. Much of our communication happens before we even open our mouths. Think about what your clothing and accessories are saying about you, and challenge yourself to take a risk and express your individuality a little more. It may sound too obvious, but many amazing conversations have been spurred by people wearing provocative slogan t-shirts!
Just as you can become more masterful in what you communicate to others and how, you can also improve your ability to read what others are broadcasting. An impressive person is nice to look at from afar, but a charismatic person is nice to be with. When you’re in their presence, you feel seen and listened to, you feel that they’re the most interesting person you’ve ever met… and also, somehow, that you are more interesting than you remember!
It's the difference between watching a perfectly choreographed dance performance on a stage, versus being up close and personal with a good dancer, who is dancing with us, responding spontaneously and sensitively in every moment. This ability to feel and respond to people dynamically is down to social sensitivity. When people lack this ability, it starts to feel like you’re both in separate worlds, having two conversations that have nothing to do with each other.
DO THIS: Practice being sensitive to overall surroundings and context. The next time you’re in a new social situation, pause and read the situation before speaking or acting. What is the “energy” of the room? If the group shared one broad emotion and intention at this moment, what would it be? More practically, what are the social conventions and cultural assumptions around this gathering?
Watch people. Devote an hour or so to (unobtrusively) observe others passing by, and just notice what’s going on with them. Especially try to read their emotions, and how those emotions are reflected in their bodies, faces, voices, everything.
It may sound odd, but meditating can also make you a better listener, which can improve your communication and empathy skills, which can make you more charismatic. Often, we rush into conversations with an agenda or assumptions about who the other person is. However, if you’re mindful, you can stop and just look at what is actually in front of you. Drop your expectations, judgments and preconceptions and just neutrally observe what is happening. You may find yourself so much more in tune with others!
DON’T DO THIS: Avoid talking about yourself. Even if you’re not bragging or boasting, constantly turning the conversation to your ideas, your experiences, and your opinions is boring. Instead, next time you’re tempted to say something about yourself, deliberately choose to ask the other person a question. Most people don’t actually conceal themselves; there’s a world of fascinating information right there, if you only care to ask!
Finally, the social role-playing skill that charismatic people are especially good at, which non-charismatic people never even consider: social control. This can be difficult to describe, especially to people who think of social interaction in terms of authenticity and honesty. The truth is, however, that all human social interaction is deliberate, purposeful and rule-bound. In other words, we all play roles – even when we’re ourselves!
If you have above-average social control, you’re able to skilfully switch roles depending on the situation and your goals. You may play up your artistic, carefree side when on a date, but switch to hard-nosed taskmaster at work, where it matters. You may be very aware of how others perceive you, and choose to gently present a particular version of yourself to them, according to what you’re trying to achieve.
Now, for some people, this skill can look dishonest or manipulative – and taken too far, it can be! But you only need to see someone who doesn’t possess this skill to understand why it’s so important. Do you know “blunt” people who insist on speaking their minds regardless of social context or the negative ramifications? Using a little poise, grace and etiquette is actually an intelligent way to control social situations to your advantage. Don’t confuse rudeness, roughness or lack of social awareness with authenticity. At the same time, don’t assume that “wearing a mask” is always disingenuous.
DO THIS: Learn to love small talk. Many introverts loathe small talk, and prefer deep, meaty topics. But this is no different from going on a first date and taking your clothes off before you’ve said hello! Small talk is not small – it’s an important, necessary part of creating trust and rapport with people, so that you can build connections over time. To get good at small talk, just practice more. Chat to waiters, people in supermarket lines or the guy on the help line.
DON’T DO THIS: Don’t avoid strangers. Challenge yourself to speak to new people as often as you can. Most of us tend to steer clear of interactions with people we don’t know, but they can be a rich source of insight and practice for social skills. Don’t worry if you encounter awkwardness – charismatic people are unfazed by this and just keep going!
When you encounter a charismatic person, they can initially appear to be outside of the ordinary somehow, as though they are breaking the social rules or doing something very radical. Truthfully, they are playing by the rules; they’re just playing very well! People can make the mistake of thinking that charisma and magnetism are fixed personal qualities that belong to people, like attractiveness. But really, charisma is relational – it’s something that emerges in context, in conversations and dynamic interactions with people. That’s why we cannot be more charismatic by simply working on ourselves, for example, by dressing nicer. Charisma only happens when we know how to play the social game – and that means it’s not about us but about other people.
Let’s go back to our definition: a charismatic person is one who is likeable, and one who can influence others. And according to Riggio, they’re people who are good at impacting others on an emotional level, because they know how to express themselves, how to perceive others, and how to control the situation. How do you compare to this description?
In the next chapter, we will look at concrete ways to become more charismatic, but before we do, let’s take a personal inventory. In a journal or notebook, try to answer the following questions to pinpoint which areas you most need to work on:
To measure your influence
Do I have presence in a room?
Am I able to persuade, convince and influence others?
Am I comfortable with and able to lead a group?
To measure your likeability
Do people generally feel comfortable around me?
Do I smile genuinely and often?
Do I get along with all kinds of people?
To measure emotional skills
Am I emotionally expressive?
Am I able to read, listen to and empathize with the emotions of others?
Am I good at emotional self-regulation, and can I control my feelings (hiding them if necessary?)
To measure social skills
Am I comfortable expressing myself in public, such as in groups?
Am I in tune with social rules, etiquette and cultural contexts?
Do I know how to play a role, wear a mask and control how others perceive me?
If you answer each of the above honestly, you’ll start to see a clear picture of where you are currently, and get an idea of what to focus on and improve. Perhaps you discover that you’re an emotionally intelligent person with enormous empathy and sensitivity, but you lack confidence in social rules. Maybe you’re good at leading and inspiring others, but miss out because you’re not likeable – or vice versa!
However you measure up, though, remember that anyone can be charismatic, and by understanding your own unique strengths and weaknesses in this area, you’ve taken a real step towards becoming the most likeable and magnetic version of yourself!