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.

10 Comments

  1. Really fascinating post, Nick. I’ve already read bits of it over and over, and I’m saving it to peruse again later.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. you might be right that speed is charismatic but if reminds me of this awful boss I had once who could instantly respond and have the answer to everything. But when you thought about it, it was just something that sounded good. Since then I’ve felt ‘thinking quickly on your feet’ is over-rated. Except I guess if you’re in the republican debates.

      Reflection and thoughtful consideration that comes from listening is much better. Did Einstein think quickly on his feet? I doubt it.

      1. Thanks, Dinos, always good to hear from you. What you’re pointing to is the difference between research and anecdote. Ever since “The Music Man,” and probably long before, the fast-talking salesman has been a feature of the culture and thus has led some people to reject fast-talking because it’s fast and the listener suspects the wool is being pulled over her eyes. But what the study showed was that most people react the other way. They’re dazzled by fast talk and quick reactions and find them charismatic. Speakers and leaders need to know their audiences and be sensitive to differences — but they also need to understand what a reality check demonstrates. Beware the study with a sample size of one — yourself!

  2. Excellent post. Thank you.

    Related to your point about charisma being derived from focus resulting in mental speed and agility, I believe another element plays an important role, namely presence. When you are with someone who is exhibiting the focus you outlined and they are fully in the moment it’s quite amazing… particularly if that focus is on you.

    I also really liked your point about charisma being tied to strong emotion.

    I was wondering though, what is the new research suggested by the post title?

    1. Hi, Michael –thanks for your comment. And you’re right — presence is an important component of charisma — and I would say presence is focus on the present moment. The new research is the study showing that we rate people more charismatic if they respond quickly on their feet — the speed contribute to charisma.

  3. Ah yes, but some people are born with charisma. Is it something that can really be harnessed? Is mental agility really about charisma or perception? Apparently Marilyn Monroe used to be able to turn her “Marilyn” charisma on and off.

    I like your comment about channeling an emotion. Perhaps that channeling becomes the projection? I don’t know it’s all very fascinating isn’t it?

    1. Your example disproves your point. Marilyn Monroe had to learn how to turn that charisma on and off — that control is precisely what I’m talking about.

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