We have all seen the leader at the front of the room, the one who holds an audience in sway, bringing on laughter and tears and causing everyone to leave feeling challenged, inspired, and motivated. Though they may be experts in their fields, expertise alone doesn’t explain the glowing response they evoke in others.
Influencers like these have an enviable quality: charisma. Some seem to be born with it. But can charisma be learned? Can likability be developed through purposeful practice? Here’s what science tells us about what charisma is and how you can build your own version of these powerful people skills.
Researchers have studied the effects of charisma for decades, but few studies have attempted to tease out which specific characteristics people mean when they say someone is charismatic. A 2018 study narrowed it down to two traits: influence and affability.
Researchers in this study defined affability as being emotionally approachable. People who are affable smile often, get along with a wide range of personalities, and make others feel comfortable.
Influence, they said, was a kind of magnetism: the ability to attract attention in a room. An influential person is likely to take on leadership responsibilities and is considered persuasive.
People who are charismatic usually share these characteristics:
- They exude warmth and a sense of competence.
- They have strong social skills, communicating well both verbally and nonverbally.
- They often demonstrate slightly unconventional behavior.
- They are likable.
Here’s the good news. You don’t have to be a life-of-the-party extrovert to be genuinely charismatic. You can learn how to become more charismatic in your social and professional interactions even if you’d describe yourself as awkward, introverted, or plain old shy.
Experts in social science say one key may be to figure out the kinds of settings in which you’re most at ease. Not everyone can be warm and engaging in crowded bars and at parties. If you’re better able to be your authentic self in a cooking class or bookstore café, make those places your go-to spots for conversation instead.
Forcing yourself to fake it in situations that are inherently stressful probably won’t make you more likable. You may be setting yourself up to be perceived as inauthentic.
Some behavioral scientists say it’s a myth to think of charisma as an inherent trait. To increase your presence, your perceived warmth, and your likability, incorporate these skills into your communication style.
This directive can be problematic, especially for women used to being told to smile by strangers in public places. But the science is clear: People read a smile as an invitation to approach.
So if you want people to feel welcomed and a sense of belonging around you, allow yourself to smile genuinely — one of those really warm smiles that reach all the way up to the crinkles near your eyes.
Look people in their beautiful eyes
A bit of context is necessary here. There are situations in which a direct gaze can be perceived as threatening — eye contact as you slip past a stranger in a darkened alleyway, for instance.
On the whole, however, looking someone in the eye sends the clear message that you are paying attention.
In studies, looking someone in the eye made people more likely to rate you attractive, competent, and likable. If you’re trying to boost your charisma, the direct gaze offers big returns on your investment.
Keep your hands in view and use them to help you speak
Hand gestures aren’t just mindless flapping and flailing. They are, all by themselves, a highly effective communication strategy. They are especially powerful when used to underscore, highlight, or represent the ideas you’re communicating.
Hand gestures are visually captivating, and when used to emphasize meaning, they deepen understanding. In fact, the same parts of the brain that interpret speech also process the meaning of hand gestures, possibly because human beings may have communicated with gestures long before they expressed ideas with words.
So, when you’re in a meeting — either virtual or in-person — it’s a good idea to keep your hands out in the open, on a table or desk, which subtly sends a signal that you’re trustworthy and honest. And it’s an even better idea to let your hands do the talking as often as possible.
Own your oddities
In an age of memes and eerily similar selfies, individuality is refreshing. If you’re in a setting where it would be oh so easy to fall back on predictable and safe small talk, consider asking questions that surprise people. In her book “Captivate,” social scientist Vanessa Van Edwards recommends questions like these to bring about interesting conversations:
- What personal passion project are you working on right now?
- What was the highlight of your day?
- Do you have anything exciting coming up in your life?
Researchers have found that when people are expecting a predictable pattern, the sudden appearance of the unusual jolts the learning and memory centers in the brain. The feel-good chemical dopamine is released, and two actions follow: The brain codes the novel experience to be stored in memory, and its reward centers prompt you to look for more of the same.
If you want people to remember you, it’s a good idea to start by intriguing them.
Expressing vulnerability — whether it’s admitting something slightly embarrassing or owning up to a secret worry — may make people more inclined to connect with you. Making yourself vulnerable doesn’t mean you’ve poured out your heart before the appetizers have arrived. It means you’re open to sharing a detail about yourself that reveals your humanity.
Researchers have found that when leaders acknowledge their imperfections, it boosts the connection and compassion in the entire group. And people tend to view such leaders as charismatic.
People often describe charisma as an exceptional ability to communicate an inspiring goal or vision to a group of people. But everyday charisma isn’t necessarily about one-way, top-down communication. It’s about being fully present and responsive in two-person conversations.
If you want people to remember you, listen to them. Really listen, without interrupting, checking your phone, or steering the conversation back to yourself. Your conversation partner — whether you’re on a date or at a shareholders meeting — is speaking in body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and words.
Get curious about what they’re saying. If you notice a flutter of fear or a flicker of anger, ask questions to find out more. Genuine interest in other people is compelling. Researchers have found that calmly listening with your full attention and without judgment makes people feel cared for, valued, and respected.
Say their name
In one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” author Dale Carnegie reminded his readers that people love to hear their own name. And neurology backs up Carnegie’s claim.
When researchers used functional resonance imaging to track responses, they found that several parts of the brain lit up when people heard their own names.
When you’re in a conversation, be sure to say the other person’s name, especially when it’s time for a goodbye. If you’re introducing someone, say their name and mention one of their accomplishments, as in, “This is Josh. He’s training for the Ironman.”
Charisma is as much about connection as it is about impressions. As you interact with people, be on the lookout for shared experiences, ideas, and relationships. Maybe you drive the same car, support the same team, or share a quirky phobia.
When you find something in common, don’t be afraid to ask questions or dig deeper. A genuine connection isn’t the work of a moment.
Creating a bond with another person is an act of daring — and your body rewards you for taking the courageous step. Powerful neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are released during social interactions. Researchers think the reward for social bonding may have evolved because survival may have depended on social group interactions.
The short answer is yes. Human history is full of charismatic leaders who led people astray. Charisma is simply a set of skills that can be used to make friends, alliances, or money, or to achieve goals, whether those goals are noble or diabolical. Researchers are increasingly interested in the detrimental effects of charismatic leaders on organizations of various types.
If you’re patterning your own skills after those of a leader you’ve observed, it might be a good idea to spend some time analyzing the overall health of the organization before adopting a particular leadership style.
If you want to explore more of the science and art of charisma, you can deepen your knowledge with these selections:
- “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People” by Vanessa Van Edwards
- “The Irresistible Introvert: Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World” by Michaela Chung
- “The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism” by Olivia Fox Cabane
Charisma may appear to be a gift or an inherent personality trait, but many behavioral scientists believe it can be learned. Some researchers say charisma comes down to your affability (emotional approachability) and your influence (your ability to move or motivate others).
Other people are likely to see you as charismatic if you smile often, look them in the eye, communicate with your hands, and say their name frequently. People will also find you more likable if you establish a connection with them by listening attentively, own your peculiarities and vulnerabilities, and seek commonalities with them.
As you cultivate charisma, it’s important to be yourself, even if it means you skip stressful public events and opt for smaller, more intimate gatherings where you can communicate effectively. Charisma can’t flourish without authenticity, without a real curiosity and interest in other people. Start there, and people may find you irresistible.