In 1886, William Gladstone was up against Benjamin Disraeli to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In the very last week before the election, both men happened to take the same young woman out to dinner. Naturally, the press asked her what impressions the rivals had made.
She said: “After dining with Mr Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.”
This story, from Olivia Fox Cabane’s book The Charisma Myth, illustrates a key ingredient of charisma: the ability to make people feel important.
Former US President Bill Clinton was renowned for this ability. At a breakfast meeting in late 2014 organised by BlessingWhite, Professor Gareth Jones revealed he and co-author Rob Goffee had interviewed 23 people who’d met Bill Clinton for their book Why would anyone want to be lead by you?
They all said the same thing: that he made them feel like the most important person in the room. (And also, that he’d held their hand a little too long!)
The core elements of charisma
Many people regard charisma as a natural trait, but according to Fox Cabane it’s a skill like any other, based on three core elements:
- Presence – in our modern day world of partial attention and constant distraction, people who pay us undivided, rapt attention make us feel special
- Power – being perceived as able to affect the world around us: people pick up power cues largely through body language
- Warmth – showing goodwill to others through behaviour and body language
The four charisma styles
Mixing these elements produces different types of charisma.
- Focus charisma gives people the feeling you are fully present with them, interested and listening intently. It makes them feel understood and valued. Think Barack Obama.
- Visionary charisma inspires people and makes them believe. Think Steve Jobs and the following he created at Apple.
- Kindness charisma is based on warmth. It makes people feel welcomed, embraced, accepted. Think the Dalai Lama or Bill Clinton.
- Authority charisma is based on perception of power. Think Margaret Thatcher or former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Dictators like Stalin and Mussolini also had authority charisma. It’s good in a crisis where you need people to follow you quickly, less good when you want others’ views and participation.
Two tips for becoming more charismatic
1. Focus on positive emotions
In his book Power Cues, Dr Nick Morgan argues that charisma is simply ‘focused emotion’. As charisma relies heavily on body language, the best way to become more charismatic is to put yourself in a positive emotional state.
Prior to important meetings, Morgan recommends you visualise a powerful, intensely positive emotional situation from your past – in much the same way as sportspeople will visualise a perfect golf stroke or kick at goal.
Putting yourself in the right emotional frame of mind allows charismatic behaviour to follow, and gives less space for negative emotions to take hold.
2. Practise charismatic listening
As attention spans decline, listening is becoming a rarer skill. But listening effectively is a great way to develop charisma. Here are Fox Cabane’s tips for charismatic listening:
- Focus on listening to understand – not on deciding what you’re going to say next
- Never interrupt
- Pause before responding- it’s a great way to show you’ve absorbed what’s been said
- Imagine the person you’re listening to is the main character in a movie you’re watching – it will help you to be more absorbed
Anyone can work on becoming more charismatic, and the benefits are huge. As Maya Angelou once wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out this talk Fox Cabane gave at Stanford.