Charisma is a personal quality that makes someone capable of influencing or inspiring large amounts of people. More specifically, it’s a compelling attractiveness, personal magnetism, or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Even so, charisma is a tough thing to pin down: our definitions are vague and fluffy at best. While we can easily recognize charisma in others, it’s hard to figure out what makes them charismatic.
Aristotle defined charisma as the combination of logos, ethos, and pathos — reason, credibility, and emotion, respectively. According to the Harvard Business Review, “if a leader can do those three things well, he or she can then tap into the hopes and ideals of followers, give them a sense of purpose, and inspire them to achieve great things.” Even so, Aristotle’s notion of charisma is also fairly vague; he does not offer a formula for or roadmap toward becoming charismatic.
Fortunately, John Antonakis of the University of Lausanne has created Charismatic Leadership Techniques (CLTs), which enable anyone to come across as more charismatic.
- Metaphors, similes, analogies: when you use comparative language effectively, the audience can more easily relate to the point you’re trying to make. For example, MLK compared the Constitution to “a promissory note” guaranteeing certain rights, but stated that African-Americans had been given a “bad check.” Everyone knows what it means to get a bounced check, which makes MLK’s message very clear.
- Stories and anecdotes: In telling stories, we allow listeners to connect with us. It’s hard for the human brain to draw meaningful insights from data, but when we can give anecdotal evidence that are illustrative of larger realities, people are more likely to stay engaged.
- Contrasts: Contrasts are effective because they offer a flip — they pit your position against its opposite to dramatic effect. JFK did this famously with his line “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
- Rhetorical questions: Though this CLT might seem cliched, it actually causes the audience to engage. By opening up dialogue with a question, you either encourage people to come up with their own answers or make them hungry for your answer.
- Rule of 3: People tend to use lists of three because it’s easy to remember three items, three provides proof of pattern, and three gives an impression of completeness. This CLT is so powerful that it’s a standard at McKinsey during internal and external presentations.
- Express moral conviction: You need to show some level of firmness to your philosophical commitments. If you’re overly flexible, you lose credibility, both personally and in terms of your larger vision.
- Reflect the group’s sentiments: Conviction is best when it reflects the sentiments of the audience. When you can deeply understand people’s needs and articulate your alignment with those needs, you make yourself a champion for the group.
- Set high goals: No one is motivated by low-hanging fruit. By offering up a compelling vision of the future, you can get people to follow you; most people want to be part of something bigger than themselves and high goals help them feel that.
- Convey confidence about achieving goals: However, people are also demotivated by the impossible. If you do your best and keep hitting a wall, you eventually stop trying. Thus, the charismatic leader must emphasize that there is a plan to reach the goal.
- Animated voice: By varying your volume and speed, you prevent yourself from sounding monotone. People tend to get habituated to new things relatively quickly, so by changing it up, you can keep them engaged.
- Facial expressions: Being able to effectively modulate your facial expressions turns your presentation from a lecture into a story. Human beings are not robots; we read (and need) emotional cues to inform our responses.
- Gestures: Gestures create signals for your listeners. Whether you point or make a fist or slam a desk, these physical signs put points on what you’re saying.
Ultimately, Jochen Menges of Cambridge says that charisma inspires awe. Because we admire these people so much, we tend to hold back our emotions in an almost instinctive effort to show deference to them. Menges has termed this the “awestruck effect.” When people suppress their emotions, it in fact increases the emotional intensity they feel but decreases their cognitive power. Their brains get so busy processing their emotions that they overlook the message. For example, Menges talks about an Obama speech he attended in Berlin; afterwards, he found that the American attendees who were swept up in a wave of emotion were unable to point out what Obama actually talked about. In order to take their followers along for the ride, charismatic leaders rely on the cognitive decrement they create; by decreasing the incidence of skepticism and criticism, people become more willing to follow along.