My dad died a week ago. He had a long and honorable life, and had suffered a year’s illness before his passing at age 89, so his death was not unmerciful. Still, I was close to him and I’m grieving.
This week I had to give a speech to a group of Harvard students. Of course the speech had been arranged long before, and of course the show had to go on. But I knew it was going to be hard.
Now, the advice I give to public speakers is that successful speeches and speakers these days need to be authentic. That means sharing – appropriately – from your life experiences with your audiences. You don’t have to share everything – that would be too much information – but you do have to share something and it has to be real.
Somewhere between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, the general public became tired of hype and decided that it wanted authenticity instead. It’s the most important quality in communications today. With it, you can move people to action. Without it, you can’t even get a hearing. You’re in Dilbertland. That’s what I argue.
So what do I do in this case? Do I share this grief? That would be authentic – but it might derail the conversation, which was supposed to be about prepping body language for job interviews, networking, and so on. Would authentic grief be too much for this occasion?
I also write in this blog (and in Power Cues, my recent book) about the importance of managing your mood before a presentation. I talk about how focusing your emotion is a great way to increase your charisma. How does it work?
I offer that charisma is not what you think it is. It’s not a God-given gift that you either have or you don’t. It’s rather something you can learn, something you can turn on or off at will once you understand how it works.
Charisma is, in fact, focused emotion. Most of us go through our days unfocused and distracted, thinking about all sorts of things, a little upset, or perhaps in a good mood, chuckling at something that happens, or a funny cartoon that someone sends us, worrying about an upcoming meeting, trying to remember something on the to-do list, trying to figure out what to have for dinner, and on and on. Whatever. That mix of attitude is deeply uncharismatic.
Here’s why. We humans have evolved to read each other’s emotions quickly and unconsciously, for basic questions like safe or unsafe, friend or foe, fighting or fleeing. When we see the average mixed-emotion medium-temperature human walk by, we get a quick read and move on, because there’s nothing exciting there.
On the other hand, when someone comes in the room with focused emotion – excitement, passion, energy, anger, joy – you name it – we instantly start paying attention. The emotion draws us, unconsciously at first, and then consciously as we try to figure out what’s going on. It’s a survival thing.
The way to turn on your charisma is to focus your emotion, before you go into a meeting, or get up to give a speech, or even have an important conversation. Make it a real emotion relevant to the situation. Focusing takes some practice; you begin by remembering a time when you naturally felt that way, and recalling that experience as completely, using all 5 senses, as you can. With that practice you’ll get better and better at turning it on and off. And with that will come charisma.
So what do I focus on in this instance? My grief? Or do I try to mask my grief with something else – excitement, passion, confidence – what? And if I do that, what will I end up with – excitement masking grief underneath?
I didn’t know what to do.
In the end, I decided not to share the sorrow I was feeling. It seemed like too much emotion for the occasion and for that audience. And when I worked on focusing, I focused on my passion for the topic of body language. So I probably walked in with passion-and-underlying-grief.
I don’t know if that was the right approach. Maybe I should have trusted the students and leveled with them about how I was feeling. Authentic? Charismatic? Maybe. Maybe not. What do you think? What should I have done?