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?
In The Charisma Myth you break down charisma into presence, power, and warmth. Can you speak a little bit about those?
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.
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.
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?
How about the position of your toes and your feet?
Have you forgotten your eyelids again?[laughter]
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.
So is there any way to improve your body language then?
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.
What’s something we can use to increase charisma that’s quick and easy?
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?
So, other than The Charisma Myth, are there any other books on the subject of charisma that you would recommend to people?
There are some exceptional books on influence. One that I always recommend is Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.
Howard Suber is one of my mentors. He founded the graduate program I was in at UCLA and has taught literally thousands of students about the power of film and narrative structure.
From his bio at UCLA:
During his 40 years on the UCLA faculty, Howard Suber helped establish and also chaired the UCLA Film Archive, the Critical Studies and Ph.D. Programs, and the UCLA Producers Program. He is a former Associate Dean, recipient of UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and has been a consultant and expert witness to all the major film studios on copyright and creative control issues. He continues to teach Film Structure and Strategic Thinking.
He is the author of The Power of Film and Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity and Getting Your Films Made.
I spoke to him about how to be a better storyteller and how we can use narrative to improve our lives.
The full interview was over two hours long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post heavily edited highlights here.
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What Do All Great Stories Have In Common?
The word “but.” Which is to say inexperienced or poor storytellers structure their material with the words “and” or “then.” So “They did this, and then they did that, and then they did this, and then they did that,” which produces an episodic structure that doesn’t build on anything, and there’s no relationship between what came before and what came after.
How To Be A Better Storyteller
What is something quick and easy that people can keep in mind to be better storytellers?
“Things are not what they seem.” It’s that to get people to sit on the edge of their chair or to get them involved in your story, the audience has to constantly discover something new.
One of the constants in great stories is that things are never what they seem, because if things are what they seem, why would you read it, watch it, or listen to it?
So, in “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” — you just run off the names of the memorable films — any statement you make about the central character has to be followed by the word “but.” So Michael Corleone is a cold-blooded murderer, but he does it for his family. Rick Blaine sticks his neck out for nobody, as he tells you three times, but then he does, and sacrifices the only thing he’s ever really loved for the cause.
Without the surprise, without the twist, if you don’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be memorable. It’s precisely the fact that things are not what they seem that makes a story interesting.
The Two Kinds of Heroes
In movies we have two kinds of heroes. One is the costume hero. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. Their character is literally defined by the costume, which from a commercial standpoint is useful because we have instant recognizability, and it also means any actor can play this character. I put James Bond in there, even though he’s not literally wearing a costume. His costume is driving fancy cars and being impeccably dressed in formal wear.
But in any case, the costume hero is a professional hero. What do they do with their lives on a day-to-day basis? Well, they rescue people.
But the most interesting heroes, for boys over a certain age, that is, not for 14-year-old boys, the most interesting hero is somebody who is driving home and hears a cry from a female voice that yells, ‘Help, help, my child is trapped inside,’ and they look to their left and discover there’s a burning building, and they jump out of the car and they go in and rescue the child.
And when they’re interviewed by the paper the next morning, and somebody calls them a hero, they deny they’re a hero. And what do they say? “I did what anybody would do.” So they’re characters who perform a heroic act. Again, I go back to Rick Blaine, who keeps saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He’s not a hero until he does. I mean, he’s not a memorable hero until he sends the only person he’s ever loved off to be with another man. Then he’s a hero. But when he goes to Brazzaville with Claude Rains, he is not going to continue to perform heroic acts.
What I call ‘costume heroes’ or ‘professional heroes’ don’t tell us anything useful about how we ought to live, because we know we don’t have magic powers, and therefore we can’t be like them.
Using Stories To Guide Our Lives
Do you think that storytelling is always after the fact, that it’s how we interpret our lives, or do you think there’s something to learn from stories and the principles of dramatic structure that’s forward-looking, that we can use to guide our lives?
That’s an excellent question. Every so often in my personal life with friends, I’ll have somebody who will be telling me, it’s usually over a meal, about they’re in a relationship, and it’s in trouble and this trouble has been going on for some time, often years, and it’s now heading for a crisis. And it’s one of those things where you know sort of, even though they don’t verbalize it, they’re asking, “What do you think? What do you think I should do?”
And after listening to the narrative for a while, every so often, I’ll say, “What movie are you living now?” And it always produces the same response. The person is startled because it sounds initially like a trivial question. They’re usually telling the story with considerable agony, and so they kind of freeze like a deer. And then their eyes rotate, usually upwards to the right, which is where a lot of people go when they’re searching their memory bank, and then they’ll laugh.
That’s the important point of this, and they’ll laugh and say, “The Exorcist,” or something like that. And the laugh is a sign of recognition that the story they’ve been telling me has a recognizable structure, and once they give me that, they then usually laugh again and say something like, “Oh, my God.” I then say, as quietly as I can, “And where does the story go?” And that’s the advice I’ve given them.
NYT Bestselling Author Ramit Sethi explains the secrets to managing money, negotiating and networking
My friend Ramit Sethi is the NYT bestselling author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich. He’s also well known for his blog of the same name. What’s always interested me about his work is that it’s based on psychology and a strong, practical knowledge of how people really behave.
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The Secret to Managing Your Money: Systems And Big Wins
One of the things that I talk about in all my material is the importance of building systems. The importance of acknowledging that we are, at heart, lazy. We don’t want to do a lot of things that we should do, and so if we can actually build systems that automate a lot of our decision making — like our investing, like our savings, like all those things — then we can actually focus our limited attention and our limited willpower on the things that really matter.
So I take a couple of very intentional approaches. One is big wins, not small wins. So that means, instead of worrying about lattes. Which is the most common and ridiculous example in money literature. Here’s the truth: even if we cut back on lattes, it’s not even worth that much. $3 or $4 a day really doesn’t add up to that much.
Second of all you’re actually probably very unlikely to do that. When we wake up in the morning, you’re going to cut your caffeine out and you’re going to hate your life? All to do what? Save a couple of bucks.
Then third, every minor decision we make actually makes it more difficult for us to make all these other decisions at all. That’s the basis of being a cognitive miser. And so, instead I focus on the big wins. Things like negotiating your salary, getting your dream job, earning more on the side, starting to invest properly. For example, if you just improve your credit score when you go to buy a house that could be worth over $100,000. How many lattes is that worth?
How Top Performers Negotiate Salary
So let’s pretend I’m the employer. You’re trying to negotiate. I say, “Okay, how much were you paid at your last company?” A typical performer would either blurt out the number or they would say, “Uh, well, I mean, I made 50 but I’m hoping to maybe make 54,000 or 56,000 at this company.” Right there, you just lost the game. A top performer they’d say, “I’m sure that we can get to the salary discussion later but right now I just want to see if this is a good fit for both of us.”
Now those words sound very simple but there’s a huge psychological and strategic difference. Because top performers know that the money is not the problem. The money will come. They’re good enough if they get an offer; they’re going to get a great offer. But they’re also confident enough to push back and say, “I’m sure we can talk about that later but right now I want to see if it is a good fit for both of us.” In other words, they’re evaluating the company as much as the company is evaluating them.
The Power of Testing Your Ideas
I learned how to practice and test different approaches. In this one story I’ve told many times when I need scholarships for college I kept on getting interviews but I kept on losing them once I got to the interview. I finally got so frustrated I videotaped myself and I discovered that in my head I was this friendly, jolly guy but externally I wasn’t smiling at all. I just looked angry. I forced myself to learn to smile and after that I ended up getting more than enough scholarships to pay for my undergrad and graduate school at Stanford.
Number one is the importance of testing. You can do it in every aspect of your life. Don’t just think ideas in your head. You actually have to go external and validate these results. It’s about really getting out of your room, getting out of your head and going external.
The second thing I realized about testing was it doesn’t have to be complicated. This is a classic extreme reach barrier where people say “Hey, wait a minute Ramit. I don’t want to have to build some elaborate testing system.” Well, you don’t. When it came to me testing a way to get myself to go to the gym I took a notepad and I wrote down different permutations of tests that I ran until I found the one that worked. Soon it just starts to become part of your repertoire.
Networking Without Being Sleazy
The fundamental reason that people are afraid and scared of networking is the first archetype that comes to mind is this sleazy, slimy, shammy guy who just rifles out business cards at an event. But in reality the very best networkers, you can actually think of them yourself. We all have friends who are just like cool to be around. They’re always sending you awesome stuff. In emails, they’re like, “Hey, check out this book”, “Oh, you’ve got to see this video I just watched, here, here’s a copy.”
That is actually networking, because they’re serving you first. Now one day if they came to you and said, “Hey man, I know you have a friend who works at X company. I’m actually trying to get connected there. Do you think you can introduce me?” Of course you would say yes… Networking is about a personal relationship. I would rather spend three hours researching one person, and send an incredibly amazing email, than go to an event with a bunch of other people handing out business cards.
Books That Can Help
I love this book called “Age of Propaganda” by Aronson and Pratkanis. Most people have heard of Cialdini and “Influence“, which is a terrific book. This is another book in the same vein and it really explains human nature in a really nice, narrative fashion. It’s all based on experimental research. It’s a terrific book.
There’s a book from the marketing and advertising world which many people have not read. It’s by Eugene Schwartz. It’s called “Breakthrough Advertising.” A terrific book which is extremely dense. It took me like a week just to get through the first few pages. I reread it about once a year. Every year I learn new insights.
Then I’ll give you one more also on the idea of testing. This is also from the advertising world. It’s called “My Life in Advertising” and “Scientific Advertising” by Claude Hopkins. All of these are based around experiments. Experimental psychology or experimental advertising.
What you discover is that you can actually discern human nature. Some of it is very obvious. But some of it is extremely layered and subtle. You would only be able to tease it apart if you had experiments and then further experiments and even more subsequent experiments. That’s why I really love these books. They shine a light into why we do the things we do.
It might be surprising that I know Adam Rifkin. What’s not surprising is that Adam Rifkin knows me — because Adam knows everybody.
In 2011 Fortune Magazine declared him the best networker in Silicon Valley.
Adam is also one of the nicest, most sincere people I’ve ever met. He’s currently CEO of his latest startup, Pandawhale.
I talked to Adam about his thoughts on networking and how to get better at it.
For brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.
Subscribers to my free weekly newsletter get access to extended interviews.
Sometimes networking gets a bad rap. How can you network and not feel/come off as salesy?
It is better to give than to receive. Look for opportunities to do something for the other person, such as sharing knowledge or offering an introduction to someone that person might not know but would be interested in knowing. Do not be transactional about networking. Do not offer something because you want something in return. Instead, show a genuine interest in something you and the other person have in common.
In general, ask more questions than you make statements. Doing so is particularly useful when meeting someone for the first time. Bill Nye says everyone you meet knows something you don’t. Networking is a great opportunity to learn from others!
What do most people do wrong when it comes to networking?
Most people try to escalate a relationship too quickly.Trust is built slowly, over time.
Good relationships are built little by little, and there are no shortcuts, so do not try to push the relationship to progress faster than is natural.
Because relationships are progressions, follow-ups are important. It’s okay to follow up by email, but keep in mind that the other person’s inbox is probably swamped, so s/he may not respond even if s/he reads the email. It’s okay to email again even if you have not heard back. Over time, every interaction contributes to a deeper relationship, even when there isn’t always a response.
How do you manage such a large network and not lose touch?
You’re not going to be able to check in with everyone all the time. So prioritize the people you’d most like to be influenced by, and look for special opportunities to reconnect with them regularly — not just birthdays and anniversaries but whenever you learn a piece of information, find a job listing, or make a connection that could be relevant to them.
Writing to offer a piece of information or a connection is a great way to demonstrate that you’re looking out for the other person. Humans have a tendency to want to reciprocate, so the more you show you’re looking out for someone, the more likely that person will begin to keep you in mind as well.
Any tips for people who are introverted or shy?
I am naturally introverted and shy, so I can relate! The key is to think of networking as a skill that anyone can learn; it just requires practice:
1. Do something every single day. Make it a habit. The more of it you do, the better you can get at it. Every day is an opportunity to get better, but do not try to do too much at once. Take the longview, and connect with at least one person professionally every day. Could be following up with someone you already know; could be asking for an introduction from a mutual connection.
2. Once in a while, think of two people who should know each other but don’t, and introduce them. Follow through with them later to learn from whether that introduction was worthwhile, so you can get better at making introductions. Practice!
3. Imagine you got laid off today. Who are the 5-10 people you’d write to for advice? Make sure to invest in those relationships regularly, not just when you have an urgent need.
4. Look at the 5-10 people you’ve spent the most time with in the last 3 months. Are you happy with the way they’re influencing you? If so, find another person who belongs in that group and invest in that relationship. (If not, change the way you’re spending your time! How you spend your time determines so much in your life.)
What’s a good tip people can start using immediately?
Every day, do something selfless for someone else that takes under five minutes. The essence of this thing you do should be that it makes a big difference to the person receiving the gift. Usually these favors take the form of an introduction, reference, feedback, or broadcast on social media.
But yeah, do something that’s not for yourself, every single day. Expect nothing in return. Over time, these random acts of kindness will really add up.
Ranger School has been called the “toughest combat course in the world.” My friend Joe (2nd from the left above) graduated class 495 in Ranger School and was Special Operations for seven years.
I interviewed him about leadership, attitude and what it takes to make it through such a punishing ordeal. He also reminded me what “Ranger Candy” is.
The full interview was almost 90 minutes long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.
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How difficult Is Ranger School?
Ranger School is a small unit leadership course. They try to reenact the most physical elements that you’ll face in a long drawn out war. Those elements are hunger, fatigue, and extreme pressure. The hunger and the fatigue they are induced by taking away most of your sleep and then the stress that you feel is self-induced because at Ranger School is a voluntary school. You can quit any time of the day or night.
…The class in front of me, 395, had four Rangers die in it. It can be dangerous. It’s a dangerous school because you don’t have enough food, you don’t have enough sleep, and hypothermia is what killed all four of those rangers.
…I have been to war twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, and I rarely have nightmares about that place. My nightmare is of going back to Ranger School where I’m starving and I’m tired and I’m miserable for 68 straight days.
Most people, because of the fatigue and the lack of food will hallucinate. It often happens at night and most of the time it happens when, people are hungry. Most of the times the hallucinations involve food.
For instance, one of my friends says that he was waiting in line at an ice cream truck that didn’t exist. There were six other Rangers in in line ahead of him for ice cream — they didn’t exist either. He got to the front of the line to order his ice cream. A Ranger Instructor found him and tried to pull him away from the “ice cream truck.” My friend nearly punched the Instructor because he wasn’t going to get the nonexistent ice cream…
People will drone. When you are a droner you get so tired you will start walking off in the middle of the night or off the side of a road. You often have to stop the patrol because you have to go collect the droners. In extreme cases, when I was there, they had ropes which they would tie from the droner to the people who were more alert, to keep them in line.
…Motrin. They call it a “Ranger Candy.” 800 milligrams of Motrin is Ranger Candy, and it was just about the only medicine you’ll ever get there.
Nature or nurture? Can anyone make it through Ranger School?
Because before I went, my father and my uncle tried to tell me that Rangers were different people. That they have a different mindset, that I wouldn’t make it, that we weren’t about that. And in my opinion, it’s not like the NFL. I could have worked as hard as I wanted, but I probably never would of been a professional football player. I wasn’t big enough. I wasn’t fast enough. And so, the nature element you speak of is sometimes just not present for people to do things like that. Ranger school, in my opinion is, if you don’t quit, and you keep working, if you’re willing to recycle and go back, it’s just one huge suck. You have to work hard. You have to accept the fact that you’re going to be miserable every second of every day for 2 1/2 months, but if you can do that, I think anyone can make it through.
But I don’t think very many people are willing to do the work or have the mindset. And I know a lot that aren’t. You can’t go to Ranger School and have an attitude. They’ll get rid of you. You get rid of you. The humble pie, the infamous humble pie is ever present in Ranger School.
Or you just quit. You can, any time, day or night. That’s one of the hardest part about Ranger School is because you can quit and have warmth and hot coffee and donuts right there. And a lot of people do.
…The guys that I knew that got booted that first week lacked the preparation. They weren’t physically prepared. And the other guys that I knew that didn’t make it weren’t mentally prepared, and just didn’t want it bad enough, or had an attitude…
If you’re willing to bite the humble pie, and you’ve trained mentally and you’ve trained physically, can anyone do it? I think they can as long as, again, the elements of luck are with them. But, I guess, the other factor is, if you’re a jerk, you’re going to get peered out. You won’t make it then either. I think a lot of those aspects apply to anything in life. You have to prepare physically. You have to prepare mentally; and if you’re a jerk, people won’t like you. And they’ll want to see you fail.
Humor is king. And take it one day at a time.
It occurred to me, I said “You know what? If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through. That was one of the things that I’d say to myself and I make sure I can laugh. There’s always humor around. Given that the root of all comedy is misery there’s plenty of humor in Ranger School because people are constantly miserable.
The other thing I would tell myself in Ranger School, they say this a lot: “The only easy day was yesterday.” My Ranger Buddy and I always said: if tomorrow yesterday looks as bad as it does right now then we’ll quit. But by tomorrow, looking back on yesterday, it was over. We survived it, we can go one more day, so, we would continue on. That was another method we used to sort of help us limp along.
Leaders should “Set the example”
The military says this a lot, with very few people putting the words into practice, they always say “set the example.” So if you’ve got a leader that’s out of shape telling you you’ve got to pass a physical fitness test, is kind of disheartening. Or a leader that will never go on combat patrols. I saw that a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan. They just never went outside the wire. And they can only say they’re busy for so long before people start to say, “Wait a minute. Is this guy a coward? Is he afraid? Is he sending me to do the combat patrol when he won’t?”
Keeping morale high was easy for me in the military because of my personality, because I’ve never been a jerk. It’s always been easy for me rustle up a game of cards or a game of football or whatever because I’m a personable guy. People like to hang around me. And this rubs people, a lot of my leaders, the wrong way thinking that I spent too much time with the troops. But, in my opinion, they didn’t spend enough time with the troops. They never got down and figured out that somebody’s dog at home just died and how that was affecting them, because they never talked to them. They expected other people to report it. Well, that’s not the type of thing you report. It’s not the type of thing anybody finds out unless you talk to them.
A soldier’s not going to tell you things that they know you don’t want to hear unless you ask. I think that’s true in civilian life too. And that’s where taking the time to talk to different people in a corporation or wherever you’re at; talking to the people around you is certainly going to get you both the answers you want and the answers you don’t want. And both of those things are valuable.
Something I learned in a recent school, the Commander General’s staff course, is incredibly important. There’s a new sheet that’s trying to be pushed in the Army where a leader, when he has an idea, say a twelve mile road march next Friday, and each of his company commanders need to give him three reasons that we should do the 12 mile road march as a battalion and three reasons we shouldn’t. So, in other words, the leader asks for dissenting points of view or mandates dissenting points of view so he can look at both and weigh both. Rather than surround himself with yes-men, he gets dissenting points of view.
A good leader knows that they don’t know everything
One company leader, socially was a buffoon and tactically he was a buffoon. But, he knew he was a buffoon. He didn’t try to be a stud like my first company commander. And when we got into the field, there were portions of the tactics that he knew. It was a signal company, a signal core company. There were portions of it that he knew very well. When it came to stuff that, tactically speaking, he didn’t know, he was okay not knowing it.
We get out there, and I had just come off from an infantry platoon leader, twice. I was a Ranger. I knew tactics. When we got to our site, he said to me – even though I was his XO – he said, “You’ve got the training to protect this site. I don’t. Protect this site.” That’s all he had to say.
So those were examples of company commanders who taught me a very valuable lesson: “It’s okay not to know something.” There are people around you who do know something, and they can teach you. If it’s too grand a knowledge base to pick up right there in the war and that fight, put them in charge. Have them report to you. Put the responsibility on them. If you do that, they will execute that to perfection, and I did.