One thing that my clients and potential clients almost never ask me — at first — is how to become more charismatic.  I guess that’s because asking the question involves not one but two embarrassing admissions.  One, that you care about charisma, as opposed to the grand exchange of ideas.  And two, that you might be less than prodigious on some charisma scale.

So let me save everyone embarrassment by admitting for all of us:  we all want to be more charismatic.  Yes, we care about it.  And that’s not wrong.  Charisma helps get and keep attention, and that’s a challenge in this era of distraction.  So of course you can and should care about charisma.  And yes, we’re all somewhere less charismatic than Lady Gaga during the Super Bowl Half Time Show on the Ultimate Pop Star Charisma Scale, so we can all improve.

How do you improve?  And how did Lady Gaga keep everyone’s eyes on her performance?

Four tips from the charismatic singer’s performance, and from what neuroscience is telling us.

First, speed is more important than accuracy.  Any rocker will tell you that, to hold an audience, you’ve got to deliver at least some up-tempo numbers.  And the more up-tempo numbers you do, the better.  It’s just a question of how long the fingers of your guitarists can manage not becoming shredded. An interesting exception is Adele, who holds her audiences enthralled in other ways, as we’ll see.

Lady Gaga started fast and kept moving.  Part of charisma is speed.  The neuroscience shows that we rate people as more charismatic the faster they respond with a comment, a quip, or an answer, not whether they’re correct with those answers or not.  If you don’t know the answer, by the way, to a question an audience member asks you, you’re much better off responding quickly with a quip than hemming and hawing in a weak attempt to arrive at a correct answer.  Or just say, “I don’t know,” and say it fast.

Second, quantity is more important than correctness.  One of the things that sometimes paralyzes speakers is the fear that they won’t know the answer to some question the audience asks.  And so the speakers prepare endlessly, until they sink themselves in a pool of knowledge so vast that they can never swim out of it.

Lady Gaga poured out the numbers non-stop, filling the time allotted with as much musical material as could be squeezed into halftime.  And she dazzled us with a seemingly endless array of differently-costumed supporting singers and dancers.  As a result, we didn’t want to miss anything, and kept glued to the screen.

Third, passion is more important than precision. At base, what draws our attention most reliably is strength of feeling.  As any singer will tell you, once the lights go up, it’s your time to shine, full out, not your time for half-measures. This is the way Adele holds us; she sings with more passion than just about any other singer going today.

Speakers need to go for it in the same way.  We want one hundred percent of something that’s imperfect, not twenty percent of perfection.  Holding back never held a crowd.

Lady Gaga was all in, all the time.  No one doubted her passion for the show.

Finally, focus is more important than everything else.  If you’re focused, your body language will show it.  So don’t be turning away from the audience while you’re still talking, or moving on to the next item while closing out the last.  Do one thing at a time, do it will all your consciousness, and then move on.

Even Lady Gaga only sang one song at a time.  Focus means being there for the audience, not thinking about the plane flight home.  We never doubted that Lady Gaga was there to sing for us.  Speakers, convince your audiences of the same focus.  You are there to speak to an audience.  Nothing else.

Speed, profusion, passion, and focus.  Add all of that together and you’ll be as charismatic as your audience can stand.

We’ll be teaching charisma at our Powerful Public Speaking one-day workshop in Boston on March 31.  Sign up early to get one of the 10 places.

 

5 Comments

  1. Funny, I was just at a conference with a relatively famous HBS professor (regularly rated one of the best professors by students) — and I noticed he had an interesting tic…when you asked him a question– he didn’t hem and haw, but he definitely had a longish pregnant pause while he stared at you, that intimated that he was thinking thoughtfully through your question. He was not a slow guy, so I am sure he could have simply jumped right in with speed. I thought it was an effective trick but also maybe a little contrived. But he was definitely charismatic.

    1. Thanks, Andrew — the exception that proves the rule? Of course, I’ve posted several other times on the benefits of pausing. So that has to be set against speed as a general rule for what strikes people as charismatic and what doesn’t.

  2. Nick, my question is do we as speakers want to simply attract people with charisma or do we want to impact people with gravitas? While charisma gets people’s attention, gravitas evokes their thoughtful response. Gravitas is speaking from the deepest, wisest inner authority for the good of the whole. To exude gravitas, you must slow down and speak thoughtfully. as a speaking coach, I am opting to encourage gravitas. It may not be as popular, but boy do we need it these days!

    1. Hi, Sandra — thanks for your comment. And, of course, I absolutely agree that gravitas is important. I’m arguing that you need both (gravitas and charisma) to capture and hold an audience. I just was inspired by Lady Gaga to focus on the charisma part of the package in this post!

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