Have you ever met someone who just had a certain “something” to them? Someone who instantly made you feel welcomed, special, and important? The kind of person that you couldn’t decide if you wanted to be around them or be them. This “it” factor is more often than not high levels of charisma and it’s a trait that comes naturally to some.
Highly charismatic people are more likely to get what they want in life, maintain better relationships, and be overall more satisfied (Bhide, 2008). However, for others who don’t possess natural charisma, there are luckily ways to build charisma. We will be discussing 3 key factors that influence charisma in order to understand how to create the sought after skill: presence, power, and warmth.
So what exactly is charisma? Sociologist Max Weber describes it as:
“a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which s/he is “set apart” from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader” (Weber, 1968)
More modern researchers, on the other hand, break charisma down into 3 essential parts: presence, power, and warmth (Cabane, 2013).
Do you often catch yourself drifting off when listening to someone speak? Or maybe you find your eyes looking elsewhere when having a conversation? These actions can be attributed to a lack of presence. People are capable of noticing these facial expressions in milliseconds, so faking your listening or attention is much more difficult than you may think (Cabane, 2013).
When others notice this lack of presence, they feel brushed off, annoyed, inferior, and even resentful (Cabane, 2013). Moreover, this lack of visible presence can also be interpreted as disingenuous which comes with even greater negative emotional consequences. If you are seen as inauthentic, it is nearly impossible to promote trust, genuine bonds, and loyalty. All of these traits are key elements in developing charisma.
Neurologically, our brains are programmed to pay attention to unfamiliar stimuli (Cabane, 2013). This wiring was a key evolutionary advantage allowing humans to stay cautious and survive. However, it is not an evolutionary advantage for being charismatic.
Secondly, our society thrives on distractions. We are constantly bombarded with stimulants, addicted to our phones. This worsens our natural tendencies and causes a seemingly inescapable state of partial-attention (Cabane, 2013). The best remedy is to learn how to practice active listening.
A 2,250 person study found that nearly 50% of a person’s time is spent “mind-wandering” (Gilbert, 2009). This percentage includes all daily activities and interactions, from normal conversations to even during meditation. However, just like many other traits, presence is a learnable skill and researchers have outlined many ways to put it into practice. A convenient way to improve your presence pulling from mindfulness disciplines is to practice improving your focus (Cabane, 2013).
1. Focus on sounds
Scan your environment and listen. Registering every sound around you can help you stay more alter and thus present.
2. Focus on your breath
Focusing on the sensation of breathing and the “in and out” of it helps you to pay more attention to the way you are positioned. It also helps to drown out any unnecessary distractions so you can keep your attention on what is important.
3. Focus on your lower body
If you specifically focus on your lower body, for example, your toes, your mind is forced to sweep through your entire body. This will help your awareness of your physical movements and body language.
Remember to regularly check yourself next time you are in a conversation to see where your mind is engaged. The ability to be present creates an emotional connection and makes you memorable, which in turn creates the perception of charisma.
Being perceived with some level of power--the ability to affect the world around you with influence, status, expertise, or intelligence--is another key to creating charisma (Cabane, 2013). A person’s level of power is typically discerned by others through their appearance and body language so it is important to always be conscious of these.
A simple way to exude a powerful presence is to speak in a lower and slower register. A recent study was conducted to examine the effects of vocal frequencies and speech on our perceptions of dominance and prestige (Kalkhoff, Thye & Gregory, 2017). The study aired manipulated versions of interviews to panels of college students who assessed the levels of dominance and prestige from both the hosts and the guests. The results showed sounds rich in undertones to be significantly interpreted as more dominant and appealing. The participants associated slower, more resonant voices with power and assumed they held some kind of leadership position.
Aside from just being perceived as more powerful, people who slow and lower their voices may actually have more social sway and charisma. According to communication coach and theorist, Nick Morgan, people will try to match the tones of high-status individuals when they come into contact with them (Morgan, 2014). Not only do we want to be on the same “level” as other people, but we also want to match those who are in charge, or powerful. Therefore, when given the chance to pick a leader, people will often choose someone with the right kind of voice. By learning to produce this leader-quality sound, you are ensured to gain some level of charisma and powerful presence.
The last key to charisma is warmth. Warmth can be described as having goodwill towards others and being perceived as benevolent, caring, altruistic, and willing to act in positive ways (Cabane, 2013). While like power, warmth can be observed through body language, it is evaluated more directly than power and is almost entirely assessed through body language and behavior. One study found that even infants can recognize smiles, suggesting our natural ability to recognize warmth (Willis & Todorov, 2006).
Aside from being more stable across cultures than other traits (Ybarra, et al, 2008), this enduring universality of warmth actually makes it one of the most important qualities to possess in the majority of situations (Fiske, Cuddy & Glick, 2007). Evolution suggests that recognizing warmth helps us identify danger by distinguishing friend from foe (Cabane, 2013). Warmth is a social trait that specifically involves others, and thus people tend to care about it more whether they know it or not because it ensures survival. It comes down to a situation of an individual versus a group. In a group setting where charisma matters most, warmth and likeability are weighted more heavily because they are indicative of high performance for the entire group (Abele & Wojciszke, 2007).
Due to it being social in nature, it is unsurprising that interacting face-to-face with people generates warmth and empathy. Researchers have noted a significant decline in empathy levels in college students today in comparison to 40 years ago with the biggest drop in the year 2000 (Konrath, O'Brien & Hsing, 2011). They attributed this 40% decrease in empathy to the decline of in-person communication from the rise of social media.
Seeing other human’s facial expressions triggers empathy in our brains. However, when we lose some of these interactions, our empathy levels decrease. Taking the time to get away from your computer screen and interact with people in the real world can enhance your empathy and generate the warm persona that's key to charisma.
When people first meet you, they have to make a quick guess and judgment about who you are as a person and your behavior. Projecting a sense of power can be as easy as looking well put together and wearing nice quality items (which implies wealth).
Similarly, research at MIT was conducted on the outcomes of phone sales, business pitches, and negotiations (Pentland & Heibeck, 2008). They found that positive outcomes were 87% accurately predicted by assessing participants’ body language. The researchers did not even need to know the content of the discussions.
There are multiple ways to use proper body language to your advantage when creating charisma (Feloni, 2014):
We tend to view and stereotype traits in clusters traits in clusters (Fiske, Cuddy & Glick, 2007). For instance, someone who is perceived as powerful and competent may simultaneously be perceived as cold and arrogant. On the other hand, someone who is only warm may come off as overeager instead of charismatic.
While warmth and power are effective attributes to have on their own, combining them maximizes your personal charisma (Cabane, 2013). Research has consistently shown that power and warmth are two traits we evaluate first in other people. One study even described them as “two universal dimensions of human social cognition, both at the individual level and at the group level” (Fiske, Cuddy & Glick, 2007). That same study also concluded that having high levels of both predicts perceived competence and charismatic behavior. We like people who can gain our trust and inspire us with warmth, but who can also create results and solve problems with their competence.
LIFE Intelligence is a self, career, and relationship counselor all in one whose goal is to help you manage yourself and others. Its 9-step (mission) program covers areas of leadership: mental health, self-awareness, goal setting, regret and time management, decision making, stress management, relationships, conflict resolution, and motivating a team.
Mission 9 is all about leadership and influence. In Mission 9.1, you can learn about effective communication styles and discover your linguistic style in order to make yourself heard. Additionally, Mission 9.2 expands on our discussion of warmth and competence so you can learn to master these traits we admire the most. Learning these skills shouldn’t just be for the future CEO’s. LIFE’s goal is to help everyone better themselves in every facet of their lives, from the workplace to home!
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Weber, M. (1968). On charisma and institution building (Vol. 322). University of Chicago Press.
Cabane, O. F. (2013). The charisma myth: How anyone can master the art and science of personal magnetism. Penguin.
Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage Canada.
Pentland, A., & Heibeck, T. (2008). Honest signals. MIT press.
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(2), 77-83.
Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological science, 17(7), 592-598.
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Abele, A. E., & Wojciszke, B. (2007). Agency and communion from the perspective of self versus others. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(5), 751.
Kalkhoff, W., Thye, S. R., & Gregory Jr, S. W. (2017). Nonverbal vocal adaptation and audience perceptions of dominance and prestige. Social Psychology Quarterly, 80(4), 342-354.