Quick: Think of a charismatic person. Are you picturing a famous actor? A religious leader? An all-black wearing, TED-Talking innovator? Chances are your answer is somewhere along those lines, and your eighth-grade English teacher didn’t come to mind. You know the one: soft-spoken and a bit frumpy, yet constantly mobbed by adoring students, even after she made them spend the weekend reading King Lear. OK, I’m describing my wonderful eighth-grade English teacher, Judy Jordan. But look back: Didn’t you have a teacher like that, too, or maybe a scoutmaster or a sports coach? And hasn’t your life been dotted with people who have that special “it” that makes others like them, trust them and want to be led by them?
Despite popular notions, charisma doesn’t just come in one bold flavor. Nor is it some rare magic that only a few brilliant or beautiful people are born with. Instead, research suggests that charisma is as varied as ice cream. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even created a General Charisma Inventory with points that varied from leadership skills to general approachability. Charisma is found among all sorts of folks, in every walk of life.
And it can be learned.
If you’re like me, this news might spark alarming visions at first: visions of slimy politicians/car salesmen/name-a-stereotype who use practiced smiles and hand gestures to win you over while telling whoppers about the economy or highway mileage. But that’s not true charisma, and the fact that you see through it is proof.
“Because human beings are such fantastic lie detectors—and we do detect micro-expressions as fast as 17 milliseconds—you can’t fake charisma,” says Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism. “You have to feel genuine emotion.”
“People see charisma as charm or an ability to manipulate, and I see it as the opposite—I see it as completely being in your truth,” says author, sociologist and life coach Martha Beck. “The word charisma literally means someone who has a connection to the gods, somebody who can reach into the numinous or unseen world and bring back messages. I kind of still see it that way. When you go to a seminar with a really charismatic person, you have the feeling [of], Oh, I can trust this person. They are giving me something from a source that is true.”
So if you really want to be liked, trusted and listened to, work on your own mind first.
A gift of presence.
What I remember best about Ms. Jordan (along with her devotion to Shakespeare and her lovely lopsided smile) is how present she was. When she spoke with you, she spoke with you. Period. No glazing of the eyes. No glancing past your shoulder to see if someone more important was coming along.
Small wonder, then, that of all the mental aspects of charisma, Cabane thinks the most important is being truly engaged with others. “Because so few of us are ever fully present, if you can manage even a few moments of full presence from time to time, you’ll make quite an impact,” she writes.
In The Charisma Myth, Cabane says that during a conversation you should, “Try to regularly check whether your mind is fully engaged or whether it is wandering elsewhere (including preparing your next sentence).” When you’re alone, she recommends a technique—adapted from mindfulness disciplines—that can train you to be more in the moment: Sit or stand in a quiet place and set a timer for one minute. “Close your eyes and try to focus on one of the following three things: the sounds around you, your breathing or the sensations in your toes,” she says.
Remember, presence doesn’t necessarily involve opening your mouth. Many of the world’s most charismatic people, from daytime talk-show hosts to the Dalai Lama, are known as much for their silence as for their words.
Think of Oprah Winfrey, Beck says: “Oprah is so smart. She has so much knowledge. And yet when she talks with someone, she asks questions with such intensity, and she listens with such intensity. She actually puts all her attention on other people, and that is genius to me. It’s the power of her genuine focus on other people that makes her so mesmerizing.”
Could your listening skills use a polish? Try arriving at a cocktail party with just this one goal, Beck says: All I’m going to do is ask questions. If someone asks you a question in turn, politeness dictates that you answer, but keep it brief. “If you can ask a few questions and just listen, they will think you’re the most charismatic person they’ve ever met,” Beck adds.
Another magnetic person I’ve been lucky to know is the journalist Susan Kelleher. From CEOs to average joes, she has a knack for getting people to talk with her and for making friends. There’s no one reason, of course: She has plenty of attractive traits, including brains, humor and astounding cheekbones.
But perhaps her greatest charismatic gift is her almost palpable concern for others. As Beck says, “Anyone without compassion ultimately doesn’t have real charisma. Nobody stays interested in you if you really don’t care about them.”
And while Kelleher humbly denies that she is charismatic (humility and charisma often go together, from what I’ve seen), she does cop to cultivating empathy. It’s about imagining herself in another person’s place, she says.
Once, years ago, she was assigned to write about a woman who had lost three children in a mudslide. For weeks, Kelleher failed to compose a persuasive note requesting an interview. At last, “I stopped trying to see my own needs, which were to get an interview with her, and just went with extreme empathy,” she says. Vividly picturing the woman’s grief, she told her something like, I kept waiting for a good time to contact you and realized there’s never going to be a good time for you. I have no story I want to tell—I just want to see if you have a story to tell. The woman immediately agreed to speak with her. “Once I embrace that kind of extreme empathy where you truly do stand in someone else’s shoes—where they are a person who exists outside of your own needs—then I can make a connection with them.”
Beck would undoubtedly approve. “True charisma is basically when you disappear and allow something loving to come through you for the other person,” she says. “It energizes you.”
Building generosity of spirit takes time. As an exercise, Beck suggests this: Leave a sum of money that’s “not inconsiderable” to you—$20, perhaps—in a place where lots of people pass by. Then watch inconspicuously until someone finds the cash. “See what their emotions are in the moment they find it, and in that moment of releasing that $20 bill, it’s like you tell yourself, I will put value out just to watch somebody else receive,” she says.
Over the long haul, experts recommend practices such as metta, or loving-kindness meditation, in which you think kindly of others as well as yourself. Sharon Salzberg, who has helped popularize Buddhist meditation in the West, sums up loving-kindness as follows: Sitting comfortably, with your eyes shut, repeat simple wishes in your head such as: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy and may I live with ease. Imagine yourself doing all the above. Then change the pronoun to he, she or they and repeat the same phrases with someone else in mind, picturing them being safe, healthy and so on. Keep going with other people or groups of people in your life.
Confidence to spare.
As you might expect, it’s hard to be charming if you feel anxious, doubtful or self-critical. “When our internal voice starts criticizing us, lashing out, it can feel like we’re under attack,” Cabane writes. And just as in a physical assault, you can experience a fight-or-flight response fueled by stress hormones. As your heart pumps faster, your breathing accelerates and so on, “intelligent thinking gets shut down,” says Cabane. Bye-bye, charisma.
Here, too, meditation may help. In working with clients, Cabane tells me, loving-kindness techniques have been key to squelching insecurities that dim personal appeal. “We have a culture that breeds self-criticism, and so interestingly… there’s a couple of my clients for whom the way to more authority and power was actually through self-forgiveness,” she says.
In The Charisma Myth, Cabane also suggests that when negative thoughts arise, you try confidence-boosters such as these:
- “Assign a label to your negative experience: self-criticism, anger, anxiety, etc. Just naming what you are thinking and feeling can help you neutralize it.”
- “Don’t assume your thoughts are accurate. Just because your mind comes up with something doesn’t necessarily mean it has any validity.”
- “See your thoughts as graffiti on a wall or as little electrical impulses flickering around your brain.”
- “Think of all the previous times when you felt just like this—that you wouldn’t make it through—and yet clearly you did.”
Cabane is a fan of pumping yourself up before any social or professional situation when you want your charisma to be at full throttle. In the hours before, she says, stick to interactions that make you feel good about yourself, such as coffee with a friend. Enjoy an activity you do well, whether it’s playing tennis or tooting a tuba. And by all means, listen to music that revs you up—perhaps Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” or Cabane’s personal favorite, “Flying” from the 2003 movie Peter Pan.
Beck, meanwhile, has a visualization exercise meant to jump-start confidence and compassion all at once: Before an important gathering, imagine entering the room and being fearless. How would you feel physically? What would you say?
“What you practice in your mind, you tend to do in your body,” Beck says. And when you’re primed to be fearless, you’re also primed to care about others. “You’ll find out compassion is your natural state of being, and only fear pushes it away,” she continues.
What flavor are you?
Speaking of natural states, you’re bound to be more charismatic if you embrace the traits that come most readily to you.
Though charisma is always a mix of presence, warmth and power, Cabane says, that mix is different for everyone. The Dalai Lama’s charisma, for instance, is mostly about warmth. Colin Powell’s has much more to do with power. “Acquire the kinds of charisma that are at the Venn diagram center of what is most natural to you, what is most necessary for your goals, and what you enjoy most,” Cabane advises.
Sally Hogshead, author of How the World Sees You: Discover Your Highest Value Through the Science of Fascination, says to think about times when you enthralled others. Remember how they hung on your words and, more importantly, acted on your ideas. What were you saying that grabbed those people’s interest? How did you behave? What sorts of problems were you trying to solve? At those moments you were probably using natural assets—your attention to detail, perhaps; your ingenuity; your knack for breaking the ice with a spot-on impression of Johnny Depp.
And, quite likely, you were guided by passion. “When somebody starts talking about something they’re passionate about, they become dynamic,” Kelleher says. “They become magnetic because they’re communicating something that’s so pure, which is their absolute enthusiasm.”
So pay attention to the topics you’re most excited about; they’ll bring out your best. “When suddenly your voice picks up and you become more animated, that’s a clue that you’re on to something,” Kelleher says.
The more you let your natural advantages and interests lead you, the more confident and relaxed you’ll feel, Hogshead says. “And when your listener perceives you as being confident, relaxed and authentic, they’re more likely to listen to what you say, connect with you and take action on your words,” she continues. To remind yourself to use your strengths, she recommends silently reciting an “anthem” during conversations—a short phrase that sums up your “distinct value.” If you’re unorthodox and creative, for instance, your anthem might be “out-of-the-box ideas.” This can help you make an indelible impression, she says.
Eventually, whether your style is more like Ms. Jordan’s or Michael Jordan’s, all this will seem second nature. Take it from yet another charismatic person I’ve met: The Charisma Myth author herself.
Although Cabane was the “shyest teenager you can possibly imagine” back in the ’90s, she’s now the epitome of warmth and presence during phone calls. On video, telling a story about Marilyn Monroe, she has more than a whiff of the Blonde Bombshell’s star power. “The fact that I can function in society is proof” that developing your charisma can pay off, Cabane says. “For me it’s created a very, very rich life in all senses of the word—friendships, relationships, work. It really did transform me.”
This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine. and has been updated. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock