Charisma Is A Trainable Skill

It’s not magic

We all admire and envy those individuals that have it: the ability to walk into a room and captivate the attention of everyone. Imagine how much easier your life and your work would be if you had that natural quality. Everyone would want to be around you, would hang on every word that comes out of your mouth, and would want to do what you want.

In The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane makes a convincing argument that you can have that ability, because charisma is the product of a certain mindset and behaviors that are trainable. In short, if you read this book, and practice and apply its techniques, you too can be the lightbulb instead of one of the moths.

When you come across a book like this, you may be reminded of the old ads in comic books when you were a kid, that promised to turn you from a 98-pound weakling into a musclebound stud who ruled the beach and got all the girls. The reality is that you can make the change—just don’t expect it to happen overnight or without a lot of hard work. You have to work at the exercises even when they get hard.

Here’s an example: One of the components of charisma is presence, which is a great thing to have but hard to define. In one of those aha! moments that seem obvious only in retrospect, presence is defined as the ability to be fully present in the moment, to be so focused on the person you’re talking to that you can make them feel like they’re the most important person in the world at that time. It’s a skill that Bill Clinton is said to have in spades. That’s great advice, and you will definitely see a difference if you work on it—but you can also imagine how hard it is to do. You may easily be distracted, be thinking ahead to what you want to say, have personal filters or biases against the person, etc. Yet, with practice and constant reminders, it is a skill that gets easier with time.

One way to make the skill easier to use is to have the right mental state, and the section of the book that deals with that topic is one of the best. You can’t fake the body language and behaviors that make you charismatic; with a few exceptions, the psychology has to precede the physiology. For example, it’s hard to project confidence when you’re tormented by doubts, and it’s tough to project warmth when you don’t feel much compassion for the person you’re talking to. If you can get into the right mindset of gratitude, goodwill and compassion, most of the behaviors and body language will take care of themselves.

The book itself is excellent: it’s evidence-based, filled with useful information and practical tips, and well-written. If you read it carefully, do some of the exercises and work on applying some of its tips in your work and personal relationships, you should definitely improve the quality of your interactions and increase your influence.

The book does a good job of explaining the components of charisma and then suggesting ways to increase each factor, both in general terms and in specific situations. In general terms, you want to focus on improving your presence, power and warmth. The specific situations are first impressions, speaking and listening, presentations, and difficult situations.

One of the reasons that charisma seems so mysterious is that so many different types of people can display it: it’s hard to find similarities between Marylin Monroe and George Patton, for example. It’s easier to understand when you see that there are four types of charisma, focus (Clinton), kindness (Dalai Lama), visionary (Steve Jobs), and authority (Gates). It’s also helpful because you can tailor your approach for the best fit with your own personality.

One quibble I have with the book is that an overreliance on using well-known people as examples can sometimes confuse cause and effects. For example, there is a quote from an executive raving about fact Bill Gates:  “If it’s the quality that draws people towards you and makes them want to listen to what you have to say, then Bill has that, too.” That may be true, but having nine zeros in your net worth and controlling the fate of so many people just might have something to do with it. Did Steve Jobs sell a lot of products because of his visionary charisma, or did the success of his visionary products make him charismatic?

We’re hardwired to respond differently to high-status individuals. When a person surrounded by Secret Service agents takes the time to really focus on us, we feel special and it leaves a lasting impression. The same behavior by a lower ranking person can seem overly deferential and submissive. That’s why the sections that describe Cabane’s successes with ordinary folks are the ones that resonate the most and are the most credible.

And that’s the main point you should take from this book: everyone can learn to be more charismatic—if they’re willing to work at it. Charisma is not a quality—it’s a set of practices.

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