What is charisma? And can you increase your own charisma quotient, or is it a fixed amount – and something you either have or you don’t? I’ll answer those questions in a moment, but first, a recent study sheds light on this apparently mysterious quality. The word itself comes from the Greek, kharis, meaning favor or grace. Charisma has a long history in various religions, meaning divinely inspired, and the word today still has a magical connotation for most of us. Movie stars and politicians have charisma; your Uncle Bill doesn’t. It belongs to people apart from us, people in public life, perhaps; people who have been singled out for greatness in some way.
We may believe that, but the study shows that charisma is affected by something much simpler: quickness on your feet. It’s mental agility that increases other people’s perception of your charisma. The faster you respond in the moment, in other words, the more charismatic you are seen to be.
It’s not IQ, per se, it’s speed. And that speed points us toward how charisma actually works. More on that in a second, but first let’s take a quick detour into our misunderstanding of a related word: genius.
We like to think that genius is solitary, and effortless, or nearly so. But even a cursory study of the work of one of – if not the – greatest geniuses humanity has produced, Leonardo da Vinci, shows that neither idea is true. Huge amounts of effort, and a focus on teamwork, went into da Vinci’s work, as a review of his notebooks shows. His obsessive rendering of hands, heads, faces, hair, drapery, muscles, skeletons, torsos, and so on, reveals the incredible effort that went into mastering his artistry. And those same notebooks show virtually endless reworking of plans for some of his larger artworks, plans thought through so that his team of assistants could help him execute his vision.
It’s not as romantic to think about genius as the product of hard work and team effort. Similarly, we prefer to think of the charismatic leader as someone who is naturally or innately good commanding a room, and bending people’s wills to his or her own, or instilling an emotional response in his or her audiences.
But charisma is instead a product of something else entirely: focus. That’s where the speed comes in. The speaker or leader who is focused on the topic and the moment in a way that the audience is not can respond more quickly because he or she isn’t wandering mentally down some other rabbit hole.
Emotional focus produces strong charisma because we can’t take our eyes off powerful emotion. We’ve evolved to notice it quickly, since it might signal something important to our survival. And we’ve all experienced this kind of charisma when we’ve naturally been full of an emotion – whether it’s anger, or happiness, or excitement. Perhaps when you were a child you came home with a prize from school, and your parent asked you – before you’d even had a chance to tell your story – “what happened?” You were brimming over with a strong emotion, and you naturally demanded attention – and received it. All without apparent effort.
To focus your emotions when you don’t have a natural event like powerful good news or bad, you have to learn to eliminate the mental chatter that is normally in your head most of the day, and replace it with a strong emotion.
You can accomplish this feat by recalling a time when you naturally experienced that emotion, as strongly and precisely as possible. Focus all five senses as you try to remember what the incident felt, smelled, tasted, looked, and sounded like – and so on. With practice, you’ll get better at jumping into that feeling more and more quickly, with less apparent effort. At the start, give yourself several minutes to focus your emotion. Once you’re practiced at it, 30 seconds or a minute should do it.
Charisma is focus. And genius is hard work. Focus speeds up your response time as well as narrowing it to a particular emotion or situation. That’s where the power of charisma comes from. And it’s why a Donald Trump, in the US presidential race, commands so much more air time than a Ben Carson. One has lots of charisma, the other doesn’t.
I’ll be talking more about charismatic focus and teaching these techniques at our first public event in 6 years, Public Words’ Powerful Public Speaking, in Boston, April 22nd. We’re limiting the spaces in order to keep the event interactive, so please let us know right away if you’re interested. Click on the link to find out more.