My friends tease me, saying that I'm such an obnoxious jerk, but amazingly, everybody seems to love me. Somebody said it's because I have charisma—like a rock star/movie star quality. Honestly, I don't think that highly of myself. I'm interesting-looking, outgoing, funny, and relatively talented in what I do. What is charisma exactly, and can people create it?
—Weirdly Beloved Woman
There are certain people throughout history that you just know had charisma. Moses, for example: "Hey, fellow Jews, just follow right behind me as I take a jog into the sea."
Charisma is the Pied Piper of personality traits—a mix of personal magnetism, likability, and powerful presence that leads people to flock to and follow a person who has it. This can have creepy and even deadly results when the charismatic person is a cult leader, but evolutionary researchers Allen Grabo and Mark van Vugt believe that charisma evolved to be a cooperation booster. Their research suggests it is a "credible signal of a person's ability" to inspire a group of people to unite behind him or her so they can collectively solve some problem that would stump them individually.
Looks are an element of charisma. Being tall, good-looking, and physically stronger than your peers, as well as appearing healthy, are correlated with charisma, note Grabo and van Vugt. That said, though it's helpful to be a ringer for Gisele Bundchen, you can more closely resemble a hamburger bun in a bikini and still be mad charismatic. Accordingly, the researchers observe that "anecdotal evidence" suggests that having "particularly unique" features—"such as Abraham Lincoln's elongated face or Rasputin's piercing eyes"—may amp up charisma "as a result of their attention-grabbing ability."
The good news—for anyone who lacks height, hots, or eyes that burn a hole in people—is that how a person acts appears to be the main driver of charisma. And though some people are naturally (that is, genetically) equipped to be more charismatic through their set of personality traits, there are charismatic behaviors that anybody can learn and practice (or, perhaps in your case, engage in more often).
The behaviors that drive charisma are those that reflect a combination of "high power and high warmth," explains business coach Olivia Fox Cabane in her research-based book "The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism."
Most people probably believe that charisma comes simply out of speaking powerfully— Martin Luther King-ing it rather than mumbling their message. Actually, listening powerfully—tapping into how somebody's feeling, engaging with it emotionally, and empathizing— is essential to having charisma. Connecting in this way drives what people experience as warmth, which Cabane sums up as "goodwill"—the sense that another person cares about them and their well-being.
And sorry, but you can't just fake the look of someone who's listening (nod, nod, nod, eye contact, eye contact) while you're all up in your to-do list or formulating the brilliant thing you're going to say next. You'll think you're hiding your inattentiveness, but little bits of your body language will always sell you out.
Charismatic body language comes out of the antithesis of nervousness—being comfortable in your skin, having a sort of high-powered calm. That's reflected in slower speech (rather than squirrel-like chit-chattering), the confidence to take pauses while speaking, and breathing from your diaphragm instead of taking shallow gulps of air. (For the basics on speaking more powerfully, read speech therapist and pathologist Morton Cooper's "Change Your Voice, Change Your Life.")
Slower, expansive body movements are another mark of the charismatic, in contrast with the herky-jerkyness of the perpetually uneasy — those who always seem on the verge of making a run for it. However, there's a caveat to all of this walking and talking advice: If you're insecure and self-loathing, you can't just plaster some alpha-girl body language on top of that. Not credibly, anyway. You've got to put in the work to fix your foundation. (See my "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence.")
Finally, consider that it takes a strong person to be open about their weaknesses and failures. Counterintuitive, I know. But people don't relate to greatness. They relate to other people who show how human and imperfect they are. Cabane explains that "drawing attention to your vulnerabilities" ultimately enhances your power. In other words, instead of always working hard to look good, you'll amp up your charisma by making intermittent efforts to look bad—like by confessing, "I'm socially awkward. Always have been. I'm really bad at leaving conversations at parties—to the point where I wish a meteorite would crash through the ceiling so I could make my escape."
(c)2018, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com. @amyalkon on Twitter. Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon
Order Amy Alkon's new book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence," (St. Martin's Griffin, 2018)