We used to think that charisma was an innate quality possessed by an anointed few. Some people had “it,” that je ne sais quois that generates attention the minute they enter a room. They seem to have a presence that’s so palpable that everyone senses it.
Scientists now believe, however, that charisma is a trait that can be cultivated, and they have empirical evidence to prove it. You can learn it! According to Ronald Riggio, PhD, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, there are three traits that, when combined, create the phenomenon of charisma: expressiveness, control and sensitivity.
My sister, Lori, has big-time charisma. I’ve watched her for years trying figure out what it is about her that makes people fall in love with her so easily and completely after only a few minutes with her. Bill Clinton is famous for having “it,” too. Lori genuinely loves people, which gives her a leg up in the whole charisma thing. But even if you’re not naturally comfortable with strangers or in social settings, you can still adopt behaviors that compel others, subconsciously or not, to notice you, like you and trust you.
Charisma is something that you can “switch on” at will. Marilyn Monroe was famous for this ability, to switch from the unlit “Norma Jean” to the radiant character she called “Marilyn.” David Bowie, too, knew how to flick the switch from off duty “Davy” to flashy “Ziggy Stardust” when it was professionally necessary. With the switch on “off,” both celebrities could ride unrecognized on a crowded subway or walk the busy city streets.
Most of us don’t need to be so off-the-charts with our charm. The point is, we can all have charisma at will. It’s said that Princess Diana, a.k.a. “Shy Di,” had to dig deep to project her charismatic self, but if she could do it, we can do it.
Here’s the trick, using my sister as an example: When you meet Lori for the first time and look into her eyes, you suddenly feel that, to her, you’re the most important person in the room. She looks into your eyes, smiles warmly, embraces your hand with both of hers, and seems to genuinely want to know everything about you. She is actively interested in, and focused on, you. You sense that she cares about you and is clinging to your every word. She is fully present to you in the moment, asking open-ended questions and nodding appreciatively. She leaves you with the feeling that you’re fascinating and worthy of knowing. You feel you’ve known her all your life. It’s not artifice—it’s authentic. She cares.
There’s also a “calm energy” component to charisma, born of confidence. Scientists have noted that charismatic people speak with a minimum of “ums” and “ahs,” and that their speech and physical gestures become more animated when they’re speaking. Fun fact: This physicality is called “signaling behavior,” gestures that humans made long before the use of language. It’s in our DNA to respond positively to charismatic people.
Try it! Next time you’re in a crowded space, say, at a networking event, stand up tall, shoulders back, smile, and step up to someone you don’t know. Look them squarely in the eye, smile, extend your hand, shake theirs warmly, hold the eye contact, and watch them melt.