For most of us, charisma is somewhat like art – we may struggle to describe it, but we know it when we see it. Usually, that’s in high places. As people skills are arguably more important than technical skills or even intelligence in predicting success, charismatic people have a habit of doing rather well for themselves.
This is clearly the case for politicians and entertainers (there’s a reason Tony Blair won more elections than Ed Miliband), but it’s also increasingly true for business. It’s not a coincidence that all those ‘inspiring’ leaders we seem to want these days are also generally very charismatic.
So charisma is a good thing. Great. But what if you’re not charismatic? What if you are Ed not Tony, and people don’t drop what they’re doing and follow you the moment you step into a room? Let’s face it, wallflowers rarely have flourishing careers. Yet this doesn’t have to mean you’re condemned to drudgery and stagnation in your professional life. Charisma is, to an extent, something you can learn.
This does not mean faking it, explains executive charisma coach Richard Reid, otherwise known as TV’s ‘Mr Charisma’. (Before you stop reading, he is not one of those permatanned American self-help gurus with a sharp suit and unnaturally brilliant teeth. Reid is in fact a well-regarded psychotherapist with a clinic on Harley Street, who’s worked with Morgan Stanley, EY and the City of London police among numerous others.)
‘A lot of the courses out there tend to be based on pseudotherapy and to be one size fits all. Do this, this and this and you’ll be charismatic. That’s just not sustainable and people tend to see through it,’ Reid says.
He recently sat MT on the therapist’s couch to explain how you can develop a more sustainable, authentic charisma. Here are his top tips.
1. Be self-aware
You need to know where you are to know where you’re going. It helps to understand that charisma has three components, Reid says – power, presence and warmth. Perhaps you say sorry all the time, when you don’t need to. That could undermine your power. Or maybe your feet fidget or point to the door when you’re talking with someone, which could undermine your presence.
‘If you’re nervous or angry, you may not be articulating that to people, but your body language will show it. All thoughts show in your muscles, even the micromuscles [in your face]. On some level, people will register that and it will undermine the quality of your interaction,’ Reid says.
2. But remember it’s not all about you
Being charismatic is not a performance, and no one likes people who broadcast about themselves. Think of the Dalai Lama and Richard Branson. ‘In an interview, it’s very humble and they give 100% of their attention,’ Reid says. ‘Because they make you feel important, you feel well disposed towards them.’
The key is something called active listening. Rather than talking about yourself or firing a mass of questions at them as if from a blunderbuss, take a step back and ask open questions – what, where, how, when and who (‘why’ can be accusatory with new people, Reid says – try something like ‘what led you to decide to do that’ instead).
This helps you learn about them and also takes away the pressure to fill the gaps with verbal diarrhoea, which is hardly purposeful. And whatever you do, don’t be a one-upper. ‘People go wrong when they close the conversation down too quickly with something like "oh, that happened to me, but ten times better". Suddenly it’s about us not them. The idea is to find commonality – "oh, I did that too" – then bounce it back to them.’
3. Slow. Down.
Charismatic people tend to be measured and purposeful in the way they speak. ‘If I’m telling a story and I’m concerned with what you’re thinking, the chances are I’ll race through it, and it’ll fall flat. Charismatic people have this self-belief that when they say something, it will add value for people. The implicit message is I think I’m important, so should you.’
If you talk too quickly, it gives a message that you’re not worth listening too. If you move too quicky, whether through anxiety or force of habit, it sends a warning message. ‘When you talk about dangerous animals, the advice is often don’t make any sudden movements,’ Reid says. You can dissipate some of that nervous energy by planting your feet on the ground and tensing your legs for a few seconds, before releasing and doing the same with your arms.
4. Little and often
Recognising what you’re doing and what you should be doing is all very well, but old habits die hard - especially when they’re underpinned by feelings of anxiety. The key is to do little and often. ‘People go in with this all or nothing attitude, then get a couple of setbacks and give up. Or they take too big a leap – I hate giving talks, but tomorrow I’ll give this really charismatic talk,' Reid says. 'Nine times out of 10 it won’t work, and will actually make them more entrenched in their old behaviour. I’m not doing that again, it went really badly.'
Rather than try to solve all your problems at once, set specific goals and commit to them – for the next month or two, just work on eye contact, for example. ‘It might be sometimes you forget, but you’ll notice after the event. It makes it a more conscious process, so you get quicker at reacting.’
5. It's feedback, not failure
Most people have a fixed mindset – they don’t like to risk looking stupid or making mistakes, says Reid. ‘Charismatic people tend to have a growth mindset. They see things as an experiment. They’re not hung up on getting things right, they’re hung up on learning.’
Reflect on your strategies, tweak them and try again. Seek constructive feedback, if you can, and remember that the more you put yourself out of your comfort zone, the easier it gets. ‘It won’t improve overnight, but if you work at it, knowing what the issues are, doing little and often, then you can improve.’