Charisma. Either you have it or you don’t, right?
Everyone can develop charisma. And why wouldn’t you?
Being charismatic yields power, trust, influence and status.
But what is charisma? What does it mean to be charismatic?
It’s an elusive term which is often ill-defined and used incorrectly.
Despite popular belief, not all celebrities have charisma, though some A-listers do. And being a ‘people person’ does not mean you’re charismatic, either.
In short, charisma is a set of skills and positive traits mixed with vision and foresight that allows you to inspire others into action.
Being charismatic is not about what you do or say but rather it’s about how you make people feel.
It’s useful for every social situation and having it can make a huge difference to your life.
Is it something we’re born with? Kind of, but it’s something that you can work on regardless of age.
In olden days, the word charisma was used in a religious setting. Both Christian and Hebrew texts reference it to describe something in God’s favour or revered religious figures.
Our modern day definition has moved on since then yet it still yields the same positive connotations as it did in biblical times.
This is article is about charisma or more specifically the Charisma Code. What it is, what it does, who has it and how to get it.
If you want to understand more about charisma or indeed want to become a more charismatic person then read on.
What charisma isn’t
Before we get into what charisma is, let’s first understand what charisma isn’t.
Charisma is not glamour
Glamour is about mystery and deception whereas charisma is about being genuine.
In the excellent book, The Power of Glamour, author Virginia Postrel makes the distinction between charisma and glamour.
“Mystery plays a central role in distinguishing glamour from another alluring quality: charisma. Though writers sometimes use the words glamorous and charismatic interchangeably, these concepts are quite different.
“In its precise sense, charisma is a quality of leadership that inspires followers to join the charismatic leader in the disciplined pursuit of a greater cause. More colloquially, charisma is a kind of personal magnetism that inspires loyalty.”
Charisma is not about how outgoing you are
Introverts can be charismatic too. In the book, The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism , author Olivia Fox Cabane says the most common charisma myth is you have to be naturally boisterous or outgoing to be charismatic.
“One of the most interesting research findings is that you can be a very charismatic introvert. In Western society, we place such emphasis on the skills and abilities of extroverts that introverts can end up feeling defective and uncool. But introversion is not a terminal handicap.
“In fact, it can be a strong advantage for certain forms of charisma.”
Charisma is not about how good looking you are
Charisma and good looks are not mutually inclusive.
Many charismatic people throughout history were not particularly good looking and, of course, many good looking people are far from charismatic.
Take Winston Churchill, for example. While he was no oil painting during any part of his life he was undeniably a charismatic leader.
What charisma is
Now that you know what charisma isn’t, let’s look at what exactly it is.
The three main dictionary definitions of charisma offer some clues.
The Cambridge English Dictionary definition says it’s “a special power that some people have naturally that makes them able to influence other people and attract their attention and admiration.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.”
Merriam-Webster says it’s “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (such as a political leader).”
Can you see a pattern in these three definitions?
Charisma is not about you, but it’s how you make other people feel.
But it’s also more than this. Charisma is about leadership.
In a Harvard Business Review article, charisma is defined as, “Rooted in values and feelings. It’s influence born of the alchemy that Aristotle called the logos, the ethos, and the pathos; that is, to persuade others, you must use powerful and reasoned rhetoric, establish personal and moral credibility, and then rouse followers’ emotions and passions.
“If a leader can do those three things well, he or she can then tap into the hopes and ideals of followers, give them a sense of purpose, and inspire them to achieve great things.”
Charisma requires a wide range of social and emotional skills
In the book, The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How to Get It, How to Use It by Ronald E. Riggio he says the definition of charisma is, “a complex and sophisticated social and emotional skills that allow charismatic individuals to affect and influence others at a deep emotional level, to communicate effectively with them, and to make strong personal connections.”
Charisma is about other people’s feelings towards YOU
Charisma is about connection
It’s about connecting with other people on a personal level.
Charisma is about communication
Using powerful rhetoric and nonverbal communication to get your message across.
Charisma is about purpose
Having a purpose or cause bigger than yourself and resonates with other people.
What does it mean to be charismatic?
Being charismatic means you have a rich set of skills.
You have great strength but you have great empathy too; your experience is vast but you remain curious about the world; you are highly credible but are also relatable; your intelligence is fused with passion and you can channel seriousness and humour whenever appropriate.
A charismatic person understands himself and other people on a deep level. They know what makes people tick and they know how to motivate them. They are persuasive and can make you see different views and perspectives you aren’t aware of.
A charismatic person is on a journey. They have a sense of purpose greater than themselves and they are moving towards it. They make you feel a part of the journey which makes you want to join them.
What are the benefits of having charisma?
Charismatic people make others bend to their will. Regardless of whether their intentions are good or bad, they have a certain influence and magnetism over other people that make them want to follow them.
This type of power has many benefits.
As The Charisma Myth states, “Charisma can get people to like you, trust you and want to be lead by you. It can determine whether you’re seen as a follower or leader; whether or not your ideas get adopted, and how effectively your products are implemented. Like it or not, charisma makes people want to do what you want them to do.”
Charisma and leadership go hand-in-hand. A global survey analysing perceptions of leadership across 62 countries found ‘charismatic’ and ‘inspirational’ were the two most recurring attributes people thought made a good leader.
This proves that charisma’s association with leadership is not a cultural phenomenon but a human one. Indeed, people demand that their leaders be charismatic.
Most people think persuasion and influence are the same thing but this is incorrect.
To persuade is an action you take whereas to influence is a trait you have.
Persuasion is short-term whereas influence is long-term.
Persuasion gives you the power to ‘require’ others whereas influence is the ability to ‘inspire’ others.
See the difference?
Charismatic people are both persuasive and influential. They have to be to bring people along with them and having this kind of control over them can help in many ways.
Charisma increases power and power increases status.
Social status can be achieved in different ways depending on the situation. In this instance, an increase in status is a byproduct of having charisma.
When you have charisma, people either like, love or adore you. Regardless of the sentiment, they have toward you, they all trust you.
Being charismatic makes you trustworthy in the eyes of others. To them, you have proven you can be trusted. In fact, some will put you on a pedestal and give you deity-like status.
Famous charismatic people
The Charisma Myth tells a tale of two UK politicians competing for the position of UK prime minister and how charisma was a deciding factor in who won.
Both Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, both two historic individuals in their own right, were running to be arguably the most powerful person on the planet.
This was during the Victorian era when the British Empire was at the height of its power meaning whoever won controlled half the world.
One lucky lady had the chance to go out to dinner with both Disraeli and Gladstone a week before the election. That lady was Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston, and while impressed with them both, she made an important distinction between their hospitality.
“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”
No prizes for guessing who won the election.
Churchill is one of the greatest leaders in modern times and arguably one of the greatest leaders of all time.
Charismatic people are leaders but they don’t always have good intentions. You can’t discuss Churchill’s charismatic leadership qualities without mentioning Hitler who was as charismatic, or had what the BBC calls ‘dark charisma’.
Churchill was a master of rhetoric and had full command of the English language. His wartime speeches have been set in the stone of history, forever remembered for rallying a small island like Britain against the might of the German forces.
With vision, courage and defiance he led Britain and the allied forces to victory.
Before becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill spent the previous decade as a political outcast. It was during this time he was a prolific writer and perhaps, without him knowing, prepared him for what was to come. Such is the fragility of charisma.
One cannot discuss charismatic people without mentioning Bill Clinton. The 42nd President of the United States has a reputation of being one of the most charismatic men on earth.
Republicans didn’t like him before a meeting and they didn’t like him after a meeting, but during the meeting, they were enamoured with him.
Watch this video from the excellent YouTube channel, Charisma On Command on the secret of Bill Clinton’s charisma.
She was part of the Hollywood A-list for forty years and even now, 25 years after her death, she remains an iconic figure in entertainment history.
Not only this, Hepburn was one of the rare few who had both glamour and charisma in equal measure. Iconic photographs of her are tick all the glamour boxes but it was in TV interviews that her charismatic side shone through.
She was the embodiment of grace, poise and eloquence which she carried through from her time in Hollywood to her later life as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
As well as being a scientist, inventor, printer, statesman, politician and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin had a deep understanding of people and what motivated them.
The psychological term ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘ was discovered by Franklin and describes how asking someone to do you a favour results in them liking you more.
Franklin developed his charisma skills through trial and error. As a young man, his preconceived notions of people’s motivations were quashed causing him to run his own social psychology tests.
The “greatest of all time” had charisma in spades. He burst onto the boxing scene in the 1960s acting brash and cocky but with immense fighting talents.
Black men at the time were meant to be quiet and humble but Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) wasn’t having any of that.
Ali had courage both in and out of the ring. Winning brutal fights with some of boxing’s greatest opponents and outside of the ring, he stood up for his beliefs to the detriment of his career.
He was warm, kind, funny, loved by many and became one of the most well-known and influential sportsmen in the world. That’s charisma.
How can a young man from post-war Austria become the world’s most muscular man, the world’s highest paid actor, marry a Kennedy and reach the pinnacle of US politics for a non-born American citizen?
Charisma, of course.
People often think Arnold got to where he is because of his (at the time) freakish size and dedication to bodybuilding. This helped of course but Arnold is one of the most charismatic men in recent times.
Listen to the words Howard Stern and his team use in the video below to describe how they felt when they met him.
“He has such a strong presence.”
“Meeting him is like meeting a president.”
“I was giddy.”
“Two girls started shaking and crying.”
“He makes me think I can be in better shape and look good.”
Can we learn charisma?
Well-known psychology professor and author, Richard Wiseman, said in a 2005 BBC article that 50 percent of charisma is innate while the other 50 percent can be taught.
Author of The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane, disagrees and says one of the biggest charisma myths is either you have it or you don’t.
Contrary to popular belief, Fox Cabane says, you’re not born charismatic. One of the reasons charisma is mistakenly held to be innate is that charismatic behaviours are learned early on in life.
In fact, people don’t realise they’re learning them. They’re just trying new behaviours and refining them. Eventually, these behaviours become instinctive.
From a leadership standpoint, psychology professor, Richard Arvey, estimates that leadership is “2/3 innate” and “1/3 born.”
Regardless of whether charisma and leadership are part innate or fully learned, you can improve wherever you are on the charismatic spectrum.
That’s not to say learning charisma is easy. It takes time, persistence, a lot of fails, a little social anxiety and continuous practice. There is a way to hone your charisma skills, however.
The Charisma Code: How to develop charisma
Below is a chart I’ve created of The Charisma Code. It’s about skills, traits, actions, vision and benefits.
In The Charisma Myth, Fox Cabane says there are three magnetic qualities of charismatic people. These are:
People with charisma have an extraordinary presence. Fox Cabane says this is the real core of charisma. “Bill Gates gives you the feeling he’s completely here with you, in the moment.”
We can’t fake presence as the person you’re speaking to will likely notice it. Our faces give away subtle clues and micro-expressions that show that we’re not there, in the moment, with the other person.
Fox Cabane says presence is the foundation on which charisma rests. Breaking presence down further you need three attributes.
- Focus. Being present in the moment and dedicating all yourself and your focus to the interaction
- Active listening. Thoroughly listening to the other person’s point-of-view instead of formulating a response in your own head
- Assertiveness. Standing up for yourself among other people in a calm and positive way without being either aggressive or passive aggressive
Power in this sense doesn’t mean commanding an army. It’s not the actual power you yield but other people’s perception of your ability to affect the world around you.
Whether this is through raw physical power or through large amounts of money, expertise, intelligence, high social status and so forth. People look for clues of power in your appearance, in other’s reaction to you, but most of all in your demeanour and body language.
To create a sense of power you do these four following things:
- Cultivate your special skills, knowledge and expertise. These are a source of power
- Body language. This accounts for 60% of interpersonal communication. Convey power by improving your body posture, keep your head up, shoulders back and chest out
- Make eye contact. It’s an outward expression that you’re competent and fully engaged
- Vocal intonation. The sound of a speaker’s voice matters twice as much as what they are saying.
A powerful person who is not warm can be impressive but isn’t necessarily charismatic and in fact can come across as arrogant, cold, or standoffish.
Likewise, someone who possesses warmth without power can be likeable, but isn’t necessarily charismatic and can come across as over-eager, subservient, or desperate to please.
This is why power and warmth are required in equal measure. Warmth is what makes you approachable and requires these four elements:
- Show respect. Being polite and treating others as equal even if they are not the same hierarchical level as you
- Show you care. Pay attention to the little things by praising people strengths and build people up
- Positivity. Charismatic people have a genuine smile and focus on the bright side of any situation
- Enthusiasm. “Charisma is the transference of enthusiasm.” Ralph Archbold
Speakers with charisma are very skilled communicators. They have the verbal eloquence and can also communicate to people on a deep and emotional level. They have a vision and can communicate it to people to arouse strong emotions in them and get them to act.
A 2012 Harvard Business Review article outlined the key requirements for charismatic speaking. One of the authors is John Antonakis who carried out the research to understand what was the criteria to be a charismatic speaker.
He identified four areas.
1. Connect, compare and contrast
Charismatic speakers help listeners understand, relate to and remember a message. A powerful way to do this is to use metaphors, similes and analogies.
Stories and anecdotes make messages more engaging and help listeners connect with the speaker.
Contrasts are a key tactic because they combine reason and passion. JFK’s ”Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is a great example of this
2. Engage and distil
Charismatic leaders use rhetorical questions to encourage engagement.
Three-part lists are an effective tactic used because they distil any message into key takeaways. Why three? Because most people can remember three things. Three gives a sense of completeness.
3. Show integrity, authority and passion
Expressions of moral conviction and statements that represent the sentiments of the group – even when the sentiments are negative – establish your credibility by revealing the quality of your character to listeners.
Setting high goals allows charismatic leaders to show passion. But one must convey confidence that you can achieve high goals.
Three nonverbal cues – an expression of voice, body and face – are also key to charisma. These are covered more in-depth below.
Watch Antonakis’ TEDx talk on the very topic and notice how he uses all these charismatic speaking tactics within the talk itself.
The speed of your responses is critical to be seen as charismatic.
An interesting study by the University of Queensland found that there is a connection between the speed of response and charisma.
People who think and respond to questions quickly are seen as more charismatic.
A delayed response when replying to someone, even by a few hundred milliseconds, can give the other person cause to assume that your answer is not your real one.
The research’s author, Bill von Hippel says, “A few milliseconds may seem awfully quick but if you tell somebody something important and whenever they pause, even if just for half a second, that pause can carry a ton of meaning.”
The key takeaway from this is, don’t pause in your responses when someone tells you something important.
Nonverbal communication skills
Your body is capable of giving off thousands of nonverbal signals without you even knowing and your body often reveals more than what you say.
Learning body language is a useful skill to have. It allows you to read other people and trains you to develop positive body language of your own.
- Body language is key
One of the best books on nonverbal communication is What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro.
The book teaches you all about body language, how to read it and how to use it
Some of the nonverbal tactics Navarro teaches are:
- Dominant poses
- Power poses
- Pacifying behaviours
- Friendly body language
If you want to develop your charisma you have to use the appropriate nonverbal communication when it’s most required.
Some samples from the book include;
Legs and feet are important for decoding body language. On the left, the knee is further away and barriers have been removed. On the right, the knee acts a barrier.
This is the ‘arms akimbo’ pose and is a powerful territorial display that can be used to establish dominance and to signal to others there are issues.
Charismatic people are a mixture of power, presence and warmth and on occasion have to show a lack of the latter in specific situations.
Once you’re aware of arms akimbo, you begin to notice how people in power use this tactic in situations to display dominance. It’s a key move used by many US presidents.
Arms spread out over chairs are telling people you are comfortable with yourself, with them and with the world around you.
Crossed legs can be seen as a sign of defence but, as shown in the image above, it’s both how they are crossed and the context is what counts.
This position ticks all the charismatic boxes. It signifies power, presence and warmth.
2. Eye contact
The book, The Laws of Charisma: How to Captivate, Inspire, and Influence for Maximum Success , makes an important point on eye contact.
“Through the eyes, the audience can gauge the truthfulness, intelligence and feelings of a speaker. Not making eye contact when we ought to can have devastating results. Charisma is enhanced with perfect, engaging eye contact.”
A guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog by persuasion and language researcher, Michael Ellsberg, said the secret to Bill Clinton’s legendary charm and face-to-face persuasion is in his eyes.
The post details how to improve your eye contact to be charismatic.
- Practice brief eye contact with strangers
Walk down the street and look into the eyes of every person you walk past long enough to see their eye colour. When you’re being served at the counter look into the salesperson’s eyes. In all cases keep a neutral facial expression and soft gaze.
- Learn the art of personal space
Closing proximity when speaking to people in a non-confrontational way can help increase feelings of trust, intimacy and affinity. To do this you have to master “the subtle art of personal space.”
In other words, you can get close to people in a respectful way and not make them feel uncomfortable.
- Practice being present
Maintaining eye contact is one thing but listening to the other person intently is another. When engaging with people always try to remain in the moment with them and don’t allow your mind to wander off.
Become a master
Knowing how to be charismatic is one thing, but it is pointless without having an underlying skill and purpose to use it.
Muhammad Ali was first and foremost an amazing fighter; Clinton was a skilled politician; Hepburn a talented actor; Schwarzenegger the most muscular man in the world; Gandhi had a purpose and mission to seek independence.
In other words, all these charismatic people had underlying talents, skills and a purpose that formed the foundation on which they developed their charisma.
If you don’t have a skill or you don’t have a field of expertise then you need to start working on it.
The book Mastery by Robert Greene outlines what the path to mastery looks like and how to get there.
- Discover your calling or life’s task
- Find an apprenticeship
- Find a mentor
- Develop social intelligence (i.e. charisma!)
- Awaken the dimensional mind
- Fuse the intuitive with the rational
The dark side of charisma
Charisma is indifferent and people can use it for both good and evil. Just because someone is charismatic it doesn’t mean their intentions are good.
Hitler was a charismatic leader which is how he persuaded millions of German people to do what they did.
Charles Manson was a charismatic leader too because how else could he lead ‘The Family’ to kill all those people?
Not to be too morbid here. Even if some people are using charisma for their own purposes it’s rare to be at the extent to murder people or to start a world war.
In business, it helps to understand what people’s underlying motives are for them to become a leader.
In the article Ethics of Charismatic Leadership, authors Howell and Avolio outline the differences between an ethical charismatic leader and an unethical one.
A Harvard Business Review article looks at why we tend to follow charismatic narcissists over more humble type people.
The basic premise of the article is, people are attracted to charismatic individuals, regardless of their underlying motivations. Charisma is a quality we can’t help but admire.
As the article states, “we appear to be hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.”
How to crack your own charisma code
Now you know that charisma is not innate but can be taught you should work on your own skills. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to be more charismatic?
It starts with doing some introspective work.
Think back to previous conversations and situations and evaluate how well you performed.
Can you improve your listening skills? During conversations do you listen intently or are you waiting to say your bit?
Can you put yourself in the other person’s shoes? Do you empathise with someone when they’re confiding in you? Can you truly put yourself in their situation to understand how they might be feeling?
Do you have positive body language and hold your body with good posture? Do you hold your gaze on the other person’s eyes when speaking with them?
Can you verbally communicate well? Are you articulate and have good vocal tonality? Are you good at telling stories to captivate people?
Remain present and aware in the moment.
Developing charisma takes time and effort. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, you have to constantly remind yourself, in the moment, to be present and aware.
Before and during any social situation, remind yourself to keep good posture, good eye contact, listen intently while stopping your mind from running free.
Afterwards, give yourself a score on how well you did. This will help you reinforce the new neural pathways you’re creating in your brain.