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14 lessons in faking charisma

Beware micro-expressions which will put people off

Lloyd Blankfein has it. Bob Diamond had it. Brian Moynihan is notoriously lacking in it, as is Antony Jenkins. Charisma: you already have it or you don’t. But it can be learned.

"Charisma is not all innate," argue John Antonakis, Marika Fenley and Sue Liechti from the University of Lausanne in the Harvard Business Review: "It’s a learnable skill or, rather, a set of skills that have been practiced since antiquity."

“Charisma makes people do what you want them to do,” says Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth. “Charisma is the result of specific non-verbal behaviours,” she adds. As such – it can be turned on and turned off, so long as you know what those behaviours are.

Based on the work of Cabane, Antonakis et al and communications expert Nick Morgan (author of ‘Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others and Maximizing Your Personal Impact') we’ve assembled the following list of charisma fixes. Read. Learn. And - at the risk of becoming slightly sociopathic - watch people warm to you.

1. Manage your mind

Cabane says it’s no good simply trying to ‘project charisma’ externally:  “If your internal state is anti-charismatic, no amount of effort and willpower can make up for it.” In particular, your facial expressions will ruin your attempts at appearing charismatic – ‘micro-expressions’ lasting a few seconds flash across your face unintentionally.

“If you create a charismatic internal state you will automatically project charisma,” says Cabane.

Cabane suggests you use visualizations to achieve these charismatic internal states. Remember a time when you felt “absolutely triumphant”. Think yourself into this state whenever you want to flip your charisma switch on.

2. Avoid discomfort in all its forms

If you’re trying to create a ‘charismatic internal state,’ you need to be comfortable. Cabane says you must avoid physical discomfort (tight clothes, hunger, excessive air conditioning). You must also avoid mental discomfort (anxiety, dissatisfaction, criticism, self-doubt.)  Practice ‘responsibility transfer’ – take some deep breaths and imagine shifting the weight of everything you’re concerned about to the shoulders of God/fate/the universe.

3. Tell stories

Morgan says the telling of 'authentic' stories will make you appear charismatic.  The academics agree. Don't say: "I spent 10 years building a sales franchise a small cap brokerage firm." Instead, you should say: "When I joined X in 2002 there was a lot of resistance to working with us. Over a period of six months, I worked 16 hour days meeting clients and pointing out the value of our research product. One day, John Smith from institutional investor X turned up at the office. He was astonished when he saw how small the team was - and how much we were achieving.”

4. Speak descriptively

The academics are also all for similes and metaphors. Don't say: "I feel I could turn this business around." Instead, do say: "I like to see myself as a rudder: it's about slowing the pace, getting some bearings and pivoting the business in the right direction."

Similarly, it helps to use contrasts.  Don't say: "I'd like to work for you because I feel I could make a big difference to your business." Do say: "I'd like to work for you because although I'd only be a small element in your organisation, it's a place I feel I could make a huge difference."

5. Decide which sort of charisma you want to project

Charisma isn’t one size fits all. There are different kinds of charisma according to Cabane: focused charisma, visionary charisma, kindness charisma, and authority charisma.

People with focus charisma are truly focused on the people they’re with – their minds aren’t wandering and they’re ‘present’ (if you lack power, this kind of charisma can also come across as over-eager and subservient.) Visionary charismatics make others feel inspired: they have a bold vision and can deliver their message so that others believe in them. Kindness charismatics project warmth (‘especially in the eyes’), they avoid body language that expresses tension or criticism. And authority charismatics project status and power.

6. Avoid subservient body language

If you want to be an ‘authority charismatic’ who projects status and power, Cabane says you’ll need some expensive clothes. You’ll also need to avoid non-verbal reassurances, like nodding when someone else speaks.  You'll need to speak less, speak more slowly, pause between sentences and modulate your intonation.

7. Use tricks of oration

The academics suggest that aspiring charismatics of all varieties use oratory tricks.

Employ the ‘three part list.’ Don't say: "I can bring passion to this business and a desire to succeed." Do say: "What can I bring to this business? Passion. And a desire to succeed."

Also, drop in some rhetorical questions. Say: "What can I bring to this business? Passion. A desire to succeed. And absolute commitment to doing so."

8. Don’t hunch over. Never thrust your hips out 

Morgan says modern homo sapiens is increasingly adopting a hunched posture as if looking at a screen. This is unconsciously translated by others as defensiveness, unhappiness and an unwillingness to be in a particular place.

Instead, Morgan advocates more expansive body language. Go for what he terms, the ‘heart posture:’ shoulders back, head up and stomach in. Avoid the ‘pelvic posture’, of hips thrust out: this can be misconstrued as flirtation.

9. Do use expressions of moral conviction and empathy

The academics say moral conviction helps with charisma. When you’re in an interview, don't say: "My CV may give the impression that I'm lacking some of the key skills for this role." Do say: "I know you're thinking that I appear to be lacking some of the key skills for this role, but I am absolutely convinced that I am the right person for it...."

10. Do modulate your tone of voice

Morgan advises that you find the vocal pitch at which your voice sounds most powerful (men often aim too low, women too high). Cabane suggests that you refrain from rising your tone at the end of a sentence (it’s better to end on a low note). The academics advocate vocal animation. - Sometimes speak quietly, sometimes rise to a crescendo. Use pauses with care: they convey control.

11. Become an ‘master listener’

Charisma is about making other people like you. For this, you will need to be – or at least appear to be – interested in them. Listening is key.

To become a master listener, Cabane says you need to let someone finish their sentence, let your face absorb what they’ve said, let your face react to what they’ve said, pause, and – only then – say something yourself.  That way, people will feel truly understood.

12. Activate some charismatic gestures

"A fist can reinforce confidence, power, and certitude. Waving a hand, pointing, or pounding a desk can help draw attention," says the academics. This may not work in an interview situation.

13. Mirror other people’s body language

People will like you if they think you’re like them. And they will think you’re like them if you use the same body language. Don't be too obvious about this, however. Cabane advises leaving a few seconds before you copy someone's gesture and 'toning it down' - if they wave a hand, you could wave a finger.

14. Practice 'charismatic eyes'

People won’t warm to you if you fix them with a look of cold, hard appraisal. Charismatic eyes involve “soft focus” says Cabane. You need to project, warmth, confidence, relaxation. Seriously.

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ra
    19 July 2012

    Excellent. Good points to sell ourselve.

  • Fr
    3 July 2012


  • Se
    3 July 2012

    Found this really amusing but helpful:-)

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