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Interview – Harvard/MIT Lecturer Olivia Fox Cabane teaches you how to be more charismatic

charisma
Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth. She’s lectured on the subject at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Google and the United Nations.

I spoke with her about how charisma works, the science behind it and how anyone can become more influential.

For brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.

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How does charisma work?

Eric:

In The Charisma Myth you break down charisma into presence, power, and warmth. Can you speak a little bit about those?

Olivia:

Absolutely. One of the things that was most interesting for me was that when you look at some of the neuroscience studies, such as the Princeton studies on first impressions, power and warmth were actually the first two elements that the human brain evaluates and reacts to. Those are the sections of the brain that light up when we are first encountering someone, we evaluate their warmth and their competency, their power. So, presence actually is the dimension that underlies both of these. When you think of people describing their experiences, seeing charisma in action, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, or the Dali Lama, they often mention this quality. They give you the feeling that they’re completely present with you in the moment. Power is not actual power. It’s not the actual power you yield. But it’s our perception of your ability to influence the world around you.

 

What most people get wrong about charisma.

Olivia:

The most commonly held myth that I encountered when first doing this research was that charisma is an innate quality, that some people have it and some people don’t and whatever you’re born with you’re stuck with. In fact, charisma’s a quality that fluctuates. It’ll be there one moment and gone the next. It’s also a very learnable quality. So, a lot of people who are known today as some of the most charismatic people actually learned charisma step by step.

 

Making your body language more charismatic has little to do with your body.

Olivia:

Body language is in fact quite a bit more important than content. It’s the old but accurate: it’s not what you say but how you say it. One of the things to realize is there is way too much body language to control consciously. One of my favorite tricks to show people how this works is, if I ask you right now, were you aware of your eyelids fluttering in front of your eyes?

Eric:

No.

Olivia:

How about the position of your toes and your feet?

Eric:

Nope.

Olivia:

Have you forgotten your eyelids again?

[laughter]

Olivia:

So that’s how it works. In every minute we have hundreds of thousands of body language signals that are pouring out from us and broadcasting how we’re feeling and thinking to everyone around. So even when you manage to control your facial expression consciously, sooner or later what’s called a “micro-expression” is going to flash. And even if it’s as fast as 17 milliseconds, people will catch that because that is how fast people read each others’ facial expressions. So trying to control your facial expressions is not just impossible, it will even backfire. Since the micro-expressions will be incongruent with the main expression, they’ll give the impression that something is not quite right and you can end up seeming fake — which, of course, ruins trust and charisma.

Eric:

So is there any way to improve your body language then?

Olivia:

There is. This is one of the cases where we turn to techniques that are used in sports psychology, for example. The same way that athletes get themselves “into the zone” you get yourself into a mental zone of whatever body language you want to emanate. And that way it will cascade through your body from whatever mindset that you wanted to get. So it really is mind over matter in the sense that whatever’s in your mind will come out through your body language.

 

Want to be more charismatic? Think about your toes.

Eric:

What’s something we can use to increase charisma that’s quick and easy?

Olivia:

So for that one I turn to presence; because there’s no such thing as too much presence, and presence is always going to improve your charisma immediately. And one of my favorite tools for that is to tell people to focus on the physical sensations in their toes. Like right now, focus on the physical sensation in your toes. And though it may seem slightly quirky it actually is very effective because it forces your brain to sweep your body from head to toe and get you very physically present in the moment.

 

What’s another great resource for learning more?

Eric:

So, other than The Charisma Myth, are there any other books on the subject of charisma that you would recommend to people?

Olivia:

There are some exceptional books on influence. One that I always recommend is Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.

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About Eric Barker