Charisma: The Magic and The Menace


You know the expression "she lights up a room"? I have a friend who does just that. If Ann is around, all eyes naturally turn to her, even if more physically attractive women are in the room. Whenever she shares a new idea for a project or an outing, her friends are eager to get involved.

She recently left her employer to set up her own company and her clients followed without the slightest hesitation. And most importantly, she makes people feel good when she's around, as if we're in the center of things, and something magical could happen at any moment.

Anne has "it": that certain combination of personality and vitality that compels us to pay attention and leaves us wanting more. That's charisma. The word comes from Greek language; the literal translation is "gift of grace." Charisma denotes extraordinary personal charm and magnetism, an ability to connect with others physically, intellectually and emotionally. It is usually accompanied by tremendous powers of persuasion.

Clearly, charisma—used wisely—is a wonderful communication tool. But even if you don't naturally have that quality of personal magnetism, you can work on it. You can make yourself more charismatic by doing the following:

Make a point to feel and express your emotions, rather than denying or repressing them. Continually improve your Toastmasters skills, such as vocal variety, eye contact and focused listening. Be optimistic and enthusiastic about the world around you.

"People who have that certain extra something are not sitting with a lot of negative emotion," says Margaret Page, a Toastmaster from British Columbia, Canada. "They're not carrying around this black bag of negative thoughts that is weighing them down."

Who Has Charisma?

Whether or not we can all precisely define charisma, we know it when we see it. Think of former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, or ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, all of whom were known to charm even their fiercest political opponents. Picture Elvis Presley (not surprisingly, a favorite of Clinton's), whose taped appearances are almost impossible to turn away from, whatever you think of his music. Then there are the people we all know—the boss, co-worker, family member or friend who seems to be at the center of every party or meeting she attends.

As Toastmasters, we have all seen speakers and leaders who have that certain magic spark that draws us in. Charismatic individuals tend to hold our attention with some combination of appearance, energy and a way of making us feel special when we're around them. It's not typically something we can put our finger on—a flash of blue eyes, perhaps, or a dazzling smile. Whatever it is, by definition, few of us are immune to its power.

It should come as no surprise that charismatic people tend to be more successful and better liked than their peers. Writing about charisma a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber noted that charismatic leaders inspire devotion in their followers, making them effective agents of change.

However, charisma is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used to fulfill a variety of goals, including malevolent ones. Many Latin American caudillos (authoritarian military leaders) and African "Big Men" greatly inspired their followers, only to wreak long-term devastation on their countries. The Rev. Jim Jones induced 900 people to kill themselves in Jonestown, Guyana. Communist leader Josip Broz Tito was responsible for a quarter million deaths in a one-year period in Yugoslavia. Charles Manson incited his "family" to murder in cold blood. Perhaps the most dramatic example in history of charisma's danger is Adolf Hitler, who sent 6 millions Jews to their deaths at the hands of his Nazi regime.

Pathos vs. Logos

Charismatic speakers effectively turn down the volume on the cognitive centers of our brains while sweeping us away in a flood of feeling. To put it in rhetorical terms, they emphasize pathos, or emotion, to the detriment of logos, or intellect.

While it can be extremely exciting to be swept away, we don't always want to cede control of our faculties in that way. That brings up the question: How can you make sure you're not persuaded by a charismatic speaker to do something you shouldn't do? You can protect yourself by following a few simple rules: Before you make decisions or take action based on a charismatic speaker's appeals, step out of the situation. Leave the room. Calm down and allow yourself to think logically outside the sway of the individual. If you are prevented from doing so, that should be a red flag that logical examination of the message could cause you to change your mind. Do your research. Check with reputable people or other sources to better judge the ethos, or credibility, of the speaker. Try to get a copy of the speaker's words in writing. That may eliminate much of your emotional connection to the speech. Next, outline the proposals, ignoring the most flowery or poetic sentiments. What is it, really, that you are being asked to buy into?

Of course, many charismatic speakers have legitimate and worthy goals. Those who do will be glad to give you the time, space and information required to pause and reflect on them.

What If I Don't Have Charisma?

First of all, don't sell yourself short: You may have charisma and simply not be particularly flashy. U.S. President Barack Obama tends to display a quiet charisma, which helped get him elected. What's more, a lack of charisma doesn't necessarily doom us to failure. For one thing, the importance of that quality can vary, depending on the career you choose. Charisma isn't as vital for a job in the sciences, for example, as it is in politics and the arts. And even then, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and several of Australia's recent prime ministers all did quite well for themselves without being particularly charismatic. Of course, they had other gifts to compensate. Those lacking in personal charm may have qualities that charismatic folks sometimes lack: a good character and a focus on content over appearances, intellect over emotions, and, above all, old-fashioned work ethic.

But what's also important to remember is that charisma can be developed. Here are a few tips on ramping up your charisma quotient:

  • Charismatic people tend to be—or at least feel—physically attractive. I'm not advocating cosmetic surgery. Rather, maintaining good health and grooming will encourage people to seek you out. Most of us will never have movie-star looks. But we can certainly learn to make the most of what we do have.
  • Research shows that charismatic people in many cultures appear to feel and communicate emotions more strongly than does the general public. (Conversely, in some cultures it is the control of deeply felt emotion that is found to be compelling. This is important to check out when you are presenting to an audience outside of your own culture.) In other words, if your culture supports this, make it a point to express joy, anger, sadness, etc., rather than denying that you are moved in certain situations.
  • According to Tony Alessandra, Ph.D., author of Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success, the key to achieving charisma is to improve your communication skills. The speaking tools learned in Toastmasters, such as vocal variety and speaking rate, will go a long way toward enhancing your likeability and persuasiveness. Nonverbal skills, including eye contact, gestures, facial expressions—don't forget to smile—good posture, a professional wardrobe and the effective use of time and space are also part of the equation.
  • Be in the moment. Margaret Page, the Vancouver-based Toastmaster, who is also an etiquette and protocol consultant, says that a key quality in people who stand out is they are truly focused on the present. "They are at ease in this particular moment," says Page, a member of Sunshine Toastmasters in Sechelt, British Columbia. "They are fully present."
  • Good listeners are often described as good conversationalists. While this may sound counter-intuitive, Toastmasters know that listening is a vital part of conversation. Charismatic people are interesting in part because they are interested in us. Who doesn't want to be around a person like that? Individuals who exude the spirit of optimism draw people to them. And it's not just what you say to others. When you think mostly positive thoughts, it gives you a more self-assured, appealing quality, notes Page. "I call it 'shining from the inside out.'"
  • Be informed. If people are going to want to listen to you, you must have something to say! Take a class, and keep up with current events through the Internet or other media. Before going to sleep, you might want to read a book on a subject that interests you. As you can see, charisma is a powerful tool that most of us can acquire. Once you've got it, keep in mind your responsibility to use it wisely. And then, world, watch out! Whether you're in the office, on the podium or at a party, there will be no stopping you.

About the Author

Caren Schnur Neile, Ph.D., ATMS, CL

is an affiliate professor at Florida Atlantic University. She is a frequent contributor to Toastmaster magazine and has spoken at two Toastmasters International conventions.