Charisma: Are You Born With It?
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You can never be too rich, too thin—or too charismatic.
And for good reason: A steady supply of charisma can not only make you a star at parties, but research also shows that it can help get you hired—and even nab you a higher salary offer.
According to Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at Harvard, charisma is the quality that American companies most often seek in a CEO.
It’s also highly prized in employees lower on the totem pole: Researchers at MIT say that they can project how much an interview candidate will be offered during salary negotiations—within $1,000—based solely on their measured charisma. (More on how they do that in a minute.)
But are you born with charisma—or is it like any other skill that can be honed?
That, says Achim Nowak, author of the new book Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within, is the question he gets asked most frequently in his work as a coach for high-caliber executives.
What is Charisma, Anyway?
“The million dollar question is whether anyone can access charisma,” Nowak says. “One of the old definitions is ‘divinely conferred talent,’ which refers to the notion of, if you’re lucky, the gods blessed you.”
According to Nowak’s definition, “charisma is inside” and that je ne sais quoi is what enables certain people to draw you in. “I’m really interested in connection,” he says. “When we talk about charisma, it’s the quality people who light up the stage have. They’re like an energy magnet—and we want to engage.”
We all know it when we see it: Think Marilyn Monroe, Oprah, or Bill Clinton. But where does this magical energy live, and how does it manifest? Does personal magnetism come down to a handshake, a glance, your body language? Or do people mistake it for physical beauty?
Not quite, says Nowak, who believes you needn’t be a Brad or an Angelina to attract people to you. “Charisma is a primal energy, a sexual energy, a spiritual energy,” he explains. “If you accept that definition, then we all have it. The question is not can I have it, but what are some of the ways in which I can access this energy to bring more out of me and connect more people to me?”
Indeed. Here are four ways we can all get a bit more charismatic, starting today.
1. Hone Your Hidden Social Signals
As Nowak describes in Infectious, much of what makes us charismatic isn’t what we say. In fact, in 2008, researchers at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab set out to see if they could measure charisma. They wired five executives at a cocktail party with devices called “sociometers” that monitored everything from their tone of voice and their gestures to how close they were standing to other guests.
Five days later, those same execs presented business plans to a panel of judges in the contest. Without reading or hearing their pitches, the researchers accurately predicted which executive would win, based solely on their behavior at the party. In other words, they were measuring the strength of the candidates’ social signals.
“Honest signals” is a biological term: It refers to the nonverbal cues that social species—like us—use to fine-tune our communication. Interestingly, the researchers found that what makes honest signals unique is that they actually impact the person you’re talking to. In other words, the more happy and upbeat you are, the more so your conversation partner becomes. “There are biological functions that transfer the signals,” wrote Professor Alex Pentland, who led the research. “If I’m happy, it almost literally rubs off on you.”
2. Be a Better Reflector
Improving your honest signals isn’t a mere matter of flashing a smile. What the most successful execs did was actually be more energetic. They talked more, but they also listened more. They picked up better on cues from others, drew people out by asking questions, and got them to be more outgoing.
One charisma-boosting strategy Pentland studied was mirroring: tilting your head the same way or imitating the stance of the person you’re talking to makes the two of you more empathic, more in sync. (Note: This is one technique that can seriously backfire, unless you’re subtle about it.)
But, when wielded well, it produces amazing results: The MIT researchers found that when one participant began mimicking the other in a salary negotiation—by doing things like folding their hands or nodding their head—that correlated with a greater sense of trust. And, by correlated, we mean a better offer.
3. Quit Being So Polite
While certain behaviors can make us more charismatic, there are also things we all do that can subtract from our CQ (charisma quotient). One of them is engaging in that time-tested technique of trying to find common ground. Think: “Oh, you’re from Miami? I’ve been to Miami!”
“Common ground is, in many ways, a wonderful thing,” says Nowak. “The singular quest to find it, however, is not. It puts a strain on a conversation. Common ground means you will like me. You will not feel uncomfortable. More importantly, common ground means I won’t feel uncomfortable. We will have a pleasant and neatly bound conversation. And, yes, it will remain ever so predictable and fake.”
We’ve all been at a social event—a business dinner, a cousin’s wedding—where the conversation felt forced and you couldn’t wait to excuse yourself and get another drink. That, says Nowak, is because we can’t truly connect—or turn on our charismatic wattage—unless we abandon our scripts and become more willing to take conversational risks.
Instead of discussing the weather, he says, go a level deeper. “When we reveal something personal, it gives your listener permission to do the same,” he says. “I don’t believe in oversharing, but the more risks we take in being vulnerable, the more people are drawn to us because we seem real.”
Oprah laying bare everything from her tortured childhood to her weight battles on TV comes to mind. In other words, sometimes it’s good to show your cracks.
Nowak once coached an executive—the general manager of a large multinational company—who flew to Thailand for a corporate retreat. The day before he left, his wife was in a serious car accident. While his first instinct was to keep the info to himself (“I don’t want to burden other people with my personal life,” he thought), sharing the info with colleagues actually enhanced his appeal, says Nowak, “because he came across as a more fully-rounded human being, not just an outcome-driven businessperson.”
4. Show More of Yourself
Whether you’re giving a keynote speech or chatting up a seatmate at your next networking event, try an exercise designed to help you connect. “Think to yourself, ‘What are some unexpected things going on in my life that are appropriate to share?’ ” says Nowak. “For example, I’ll go to a dinner with big Fortune 500 companies, and they’ll hear about my chanting practice and my meditation.”
In fact, the two biggest liabilities when it comes to unleashing charisma are not being curious about the person you’re speaking to—and not sharing enough about yourself. “A lot of people will play journalist and not put themselves out there,” says Nowak, noting that they’re more comfortable asking the questions. “But the best connections happen when I am curious about the other person.”
So what does putting yourself out there more look like? Well, it depends on you. “When I coach someone to improve their sense of presence, there’s a phrase I sometimes throw out: Show me 20% more of you. And I intentionally don’t quantify it more. You might say, 'Well, what does that mean?' The answer is usually maybe more passion or maybe more enthusiasm."
When it comes down to it, charisma comes from authenticity, notes Nowak, and we do ourselves a disservice by not showing up as our whole selves. “A lot of us have so much hidden inside that we don’t reveal,” he says.
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