Give yourself the special gift of charisma

A client looked me in the eye recently and said “I’m not a natural speaker. I get very uncomfortable in front of an audience. I don’t have that star quality, that charisma, that some people seem to be born with.”

It’s true that some people do seem to be blessed from birth with a sparkle, an ability to engage strangers, hold their attention and turn them into believers and followers.

But charisma is not an innate skill; it’s not a result of genetic good fortune. It’s a set of qualities that have long been understood by people interested in oratory. The Greek philosopher Aristotle declared that to persuade others a speaker needed three qualities:

  • Reasoned argument (‘logos’ in Greek)
  • Credibility (ethos)
  • Ability to feel and share emotion (pathos)

More recently a team from the University of Lausanne was digging deeper into the nuts and bolts of charisma. Their research indicated there were 12 elements that could be at play in a charismatic performance. Charisma is as much a legitimate leadership skill as transactional leadership or instrumental leadership. In fact carrot and stick (transactional) or task-based (instrumental) leadership will only get you so far. The most effective leaders are those who use a blend of all three.

But let’s get back to the Lausanne team and their 12 key qualities. Nine of the qualities were verbal, and three non-verbal.

Speakers applying the nine verbal qualities would be comfortable using:

  1. Metaphors, similes and analogies
  2. Stories and anecdotes (as we tell people in our coaching, use stories to make your facts stick in the minds of your audience)
  3. Rhetorical questions… posing a thought in the form of a question that’s not meant to elicit an answer
  4. The rule of three (ideas and lists expressed in groups of three): “I came, I saw, I conquered”, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
  5. Contrasts – placing two ideas in opposition to highlight their difference: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Charles Dickens)
  6. Moral conviction
  7. Inviting the audience to align their moral values with your own
  8. High expectations when it comes to setting goals
  9. Communicating confidence that difficult tasks can be achieved

The three non-verbal qualities are:

  1. Animated voice and delivery – vary the volume, display your emotions, be comfortable pausing to let your words sink in, or for emphasis, or to collect your thoughts.
  2. Facial expressions and eye contact – smile, laugh, frown as appropriate, and maintain eye contact with the audience at all times
  3. Engaging, purposeful gestures and movement

(If you want an example of most of these traits in action, just take a look at any of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr).

We often think of good presentation skills as being clear pronunciation, conversational language, a good structure for the speech, good pacing of the delivery (neither ponderous nor rushed), and the appearance that the speaker is comfortable and in charge. Those are excellent qualities that all presenters should strive for. But the Lausanne research found something that all speakers and leaders should take note of. In test after test, subjects who used some or all of the 12 qualities scored higher in terms of perceived credibility and competence than those who didn’t. 

So charisma is not just a quality that can be learned, it’s an essential tool for any persuader and leader. No wonder the Greeks came up with the word charisma, when they were looking to describe a special gift.