There was a recent article on the BBC website on The Art and Science of Being Charismatic. The full text is here, and in this essay, I want to draw out some highlights (the italicized sections below) and underline how they map against the communication approaches I’ve been sharing with you.
Researchers have shown that charisma involves communicating (whether verbally or in written text) using powerful metaphors and anecdotes, using expressions and body language that successfully convey emotions that back up your message while displaying confidence.
If you’ve been on my programs or coaching, this should sound familiar! Metaphors and analogies aren’t nice rhetorical flourishes that make the speaker sound impressive. Rather, those techniques allow the audience to see something, and that seeing makes them feel good. The decision to follow a leader is highly influenced by emotion rather than intellectual understanding.
So what are the quantifiable benefits of charismatic behavior? Here’s where the research comes in, and here are three examples:
When the values a leader stands for overlap with those of the people he or she is trying to influence, a ‘charismatic effect’ can occur. “People will identify with you more, they will want to be more like you, they will be more willing to follow you,” says John Antonakis, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne. In one 2015 study, Antonakis and his colleague found that temporary workers at a fundraising campaign increased their output by 17% after watching a charismatic pre-recorded motivational speech versus a standard speech.
A study from 2016 found charismatic leaders were more likely to be trusted by their employees, who in turn were more willing to help colleagues, show concern about the future of the team or display commitment to the company beyond their contractual obligations in other ways.
In one set of studies, Antonakis trained middle managers at a German company and MBA students to be perceived as more charismatic by using what he calls charismatic leadership tactics.These are made up of nine core verbal tactics including metaphors, stories and anecdotes, contrasts, lists and rhetorical questions. Speakers should demonstrate moral conviction, share the sentiments of the audience they are targeting, set high expectations for themselves, and communicate confidence. Managers trained to use these tactics were rated as more competent, more trusted and able to influence others.
[The links to the actual research are in the original BBC text if you want to explore further].
While I haven’t been talking explicitly about charisma in our work together, I trust you’ll see that the list of skills and techniques are very similar! And that is why much about charisma is learnable:
Fox Cabane [a consultant and trainer] describes Steve Jobs as a quintessential example of someone who learned what she calls “visionary charisma” over the course of his career. She has analyzed clips of his speeches over the years. “In his first presentation in 1984, you can see he’s a nerd,” she says. “He’s depending on the product to sell itself. He displays no power nor presence, and certainly no warmth. But what you see gradually through the early 2000s, is Jobs gaining the elements of charisma. He displays presence first – he looks at his audience and focuses on them rather than the product. He learns power second, gradually taking up more of the stage, and projecting his voice.”
To which I say ‘MOSAIC!’ :O) Do you remember the MOSAIC model from my workshops? If not – no hard feelings! If you want more on this model, drop me a line!
What is clear is that Steve Jobs gradually focused more on the audience than the product or service – and grew in power and influence in the world as a result. This is a central tenet of my High-Performance Communication Academy. I am always asking leaders where their main focus is in their communication (because the natural and flawed instinct is to focus on content/product/service rather than engagement with the audience).
Now, as you’ll be aware, charisma is not the same as likeability or even character. Steve Jobs is an example:
someone who was deeply disliked by some of his employees but still considered to be incredibly charismatic.
And clearly, charisma does not cover up personal flaws. Bill Clinton is often cited as an incredibly charismatic person, but we all know the troubles he has had in his personal and professional life. The TV celebrity David Letterman, a favorite example of mine when it comes to charisma, divided the TV viewing public: you either loved him or loathed him. And he had to make a public apology when it was found out that he had been using some of that charisma to have extramarital affairs. And, for all that charisma – and with all that wealth and success – he is, according to his biography, a pretty miserable guy in his day-to-day life.
As I suggested in my earlier essay about the techniques applied by Donald Trump to win the Presidency of the United States, what you do with your integrity and your morality – how you use the power that is generated through the application of ‘charismatic skills’ – is always down to you. Trump, like Letterman, is an example how charisma is in the eye of the beholder – some might see him as charismatic while others view him as mercurial and dangerous. At the end of the day, a leader is not charismatic; it’s his or her audience that imbues the leader with charisma.
Being charismatic seems to generate power – which I define as ‘the capacity to make action occur.’ One of the foundational ideas of my High-Performance Communication Academy is that communication is the cause of action. We should not be thinking to communicate about things. We should be communicating to make things happen.
Charismatic leaders generate in others a willingness, an agreement, to be part of something making something happen that is bigger than the ordinary. Elon Musk is doing a lot of that right now. Charisma – as defined by the techniques and approaches outlined here – causes others to join your Hero’s Journey – and therefore embark on their own Journeys. And what leader wouldn’t want that?
I’d like to end by asking some questions about charisma for you to think about, and here – as you might expect from me – I want to consider the topic from the audience’s perspective. Not ‘How does charisma happen?’ nor even ‘Why would we want to be more charismatic?’ – this essay makes all that clear. I’m curious instead about this:
Why do audiences – why do human beings – seek out charismatic others?
What need in them does it fulfill?
Because communication only happens when an audience need is met.
If meeting the audience’s need is crucial – as we teach in the HPC work – then, as a leader and communicator, you might consider some additional “looking at yourself in the mirror” questions: Are you able to really connect with your audience? How do you know? What are you doing to tune into their needs?
I look forward to our conversation about this!