The Ultimate Science-Backed Guide to Developing Your Charisma

Is there science behind what gives charismatic people their edge? The answer: definitely yes. In this guide I will teach you the science behind highly charismatic people and how you can take concrete steps to developing your own charisma.

What is Charisma?

What does it mean to be highly charismatic? A simple definition of charisma is:

A compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Most people think that you have to be born highly charismatic. I couldn’t disagree more! Charisma isn’t necessarily an innate talent.

Anyone can learn to be highly charismatic with the right science.

Here in our human behavior research lab, Science of People, we’ve spent years synthesizing mountains of research into actionable strategies to help you become more charismatic.

As a recovering awkward person, I had to learn charisma from the ground up. We have found a charisma formula, and I can’t wait to teach it to you. Here’s my step-by-step guide to being more charismatic.

How to Be More Charismatic

Step #1: What’s Your Charisma Quotient?

Before we dive into the charisma science, let’s do a little self-diagnosis. How charismatic are you? I developed this quiz based on research from Harvard Business School on charisma. This 5-minute quiz will help you diagnose your charisma needs.

Step #2: Charisma Does NOT Equal Perfection

Can we bust a myth right now? A common misconception is that highly charismatic people are perfect. That their charisma comes from their superior, high level skills, higher than average income or good looks. But this is not the case at all! Let’s look at the science:

Psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a study where two actresses sell a blender to mall-goers. Actress #1 had a perfect presentation and produced a flawless smoothie. Actress #2 had a great presentation, but “accidentally” forgot to tighten the lid and the smoothie splashed all over her.

Actress #2, ‘the clumsy’ woman, was rated as more likable. Wiseman found that her vulnerability humanized her and therefore increased her influence on the audience.

This vulnerability effect has been shown over and over again in the research. When we admit to weakness, others connect with us and see us as more likable. So, I want you to embrace your imperfections. Don’t feel the need to be perfect, impressive or superior. Real charisma comes from authenticity, vulnerability and honesty.

Action Step:

Embrace your imperfections. If you are feel out of place, nervous, or awkward, admit it and laugh about it. Notice how I started this article saying I am a recovering awkward person. I didn’t start off saying I was a natural born charismatic leader — no, I had to learn it the hard way!

Step #3: Don’t Be A Conversational Narcissist

My uncle once told me, “You have two ears and one mouth, so that should match the rate you listen and speak.” I never have forgotten those wise words. Charismatic people know how to listen and listen well. They maintain the 2:1 ratio of listening to speaking. The easiest way to speak less and listen more is to:

Ask tons of clarification questions.

Instead of staying on the surface at networking events, dig deeper by asking follow-up questions and asking for examples. Not only will you understand more about the subject matter, you also will increase your connection. And remember, when you’re speaking, you aren’t learning. 

Need a little help in the conversation department? We have tons of conversation sparkers in our book Captivate!

Step #4: Gush Don’t Gossip

There is a scientific principle called “Spontaneous Trait Transference.” This fascinating phenomenon says that when you speak ill of someone else, people can’t help but associate that trait with you. In other words, if you say someone is mean and shallow, the person listening can’t help but assign those traits to you as well. This finding shows us why our mommas might have been right when they told us not to gossip!

Never, ever speak ill of others. If you want to talk about someone, try gushing. Pick someone who you adore and share all of their awesome qualities. I try very hard to practice gushing, not gossiping. I have found that it is wonderful to speak genuinely about people you respect and admire.

Action Step:

Give raving introductions. When I am introducing two people who might not know each other, I don’t just say, “Aaron meet Jess, Jess meet Aaron.” Instead, I try to rave about them. Something like this: “Aaron meet Jess. She is a fantastic pastry chef at a local bakery. She is too shy to admit it, but her secret scone recipe is to die for. And Jess, you have to meet Aaron. Aaron is a tech entrepreneur working on an amazing company that is using 3D printers to create car parts. We better watch out because in the next few years he will probably be on the cover of Time magazine!” In this way, I get to talk about two people I genuinely respect and admire, share their stories and put them at ease–they can’t brag about themselves, but I can!

Step #5: Redefine Boring

What’s the secret to getting along with people? My psychology professor at Emory University shared this wisdom from Warren Bennis. 

“People are only boring when you fail to make them interesting.” –Warren Bennis

There are two fundamental truths about people:

  • No one is boring. People have many layers. A good metaphor is to think of people like an onion—layers upon layers of flavor. People also have a lot going on beneath the surface—think of an iceberg. Only the very tip is above the water for us to see. Some people might seem boring on the surface, but their story lurks just beneath the water. The quiet person in the corner has the most to say. All you have to do is ask. Everyone has an incredible story within them. All you have to do is listen. You are awesomely charismatic. All you have to do is be interested.
  • You are responsible if you’re bored. People who are good with people take responsibility. They don’t passively participate in conversation hoping the other person will share something interesting. They actively engage, hunt and delight. 

Action Step:

Ask killer conversation starters. This is my list of 33 favorite conversation starters you can use to tap into people’s interesting-ness today!

Step #6: Avoid Bad Days

Even the most charismatic people fail to be charismatic when they decide to socialize on bad days.  When you’re not feeling your best – physically, emotionally, or mentally – it is impossible to interact with people at your highest level of charisma. Even if you try to look happy, your face will betray you by subtly showing signs of your hidden emotions. It is much better to opt out of going to a unnecessary event than it is to show up and be unable to give people your best self.

Action Step:

Say “no” more often to avoid bad days, bad people and toxic situations.

Step #7: Create a Competence Baseline

Researchers Andrea Abele and Bogdan Wojciszke asked people to choose between two training programs.

One focused on competence-related skills – more in the realm of being feared. The other focused on warmth-related skills – more in the realm of being loved.

Most participants chose the competence-based training for themselves but the warmth-based training for other people. In other words, we like to be seen as competent, but we prefer to work with people who are warm. I think this means we should create a competence baseline for ourselves and then focus on warmth. In other words, make sure your skills are up to the job — this is a fundamental part of being charismatic at work. But once you know your skills are up to snuff, it’s time to focus on your likability.

Here’s how…

Step #8: Likability is Key

Researchers Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger studied 51,836 leaders to discover how significant a role likability plays in their success. They found that only 27 leaders who were ranked in the bottom 25 percent for likability also ranked in the top 25 percent for leadership effectiveness. That means there is only approximately a 1 in 2000 chance that a leader can be unlikable and successful.

Likable leaders earn the trust of their team members and treat them well. Researchers discovered that when people feel respected by their leaders and are comfortable with them, they perform better on teams.

Teams with likable leaders also tend to be more stable long-term because of lower turnover rates. In a Gallup survey of why people had quit their jobs, almost 50 percent said it was to escape bad bosses. This suggests that one of the reasons unlikable leaders fail to produce positive results is they can’t hold onto their top-performing team members.

Even if they can hold on to their top performers, unlikable leaders almost always are incapable of leading teams through changes, whether that’s introducing a new project, changing a process or going through a company restructuring. For organizational change to be implemented effectively, people have to voluntarily change; if a leader forces them to do so, most people won’t work efficiently because they are unwilling to adopt the changes.

It takes a likable leader who has earned the trust of their team to convince people to willingly step out of their comfort zones and do something a new way.

Action Step:

Bond with your team. Do you want to increase your likability? Learn how the science of teams can work to your advantage.

Step #9: Bring People Together

Charismatic people are socially wealthy. What I mean by this is they have lots of connections and share them regularly. Highly charismatic people are not only great at meeting new people, but also sharing their talent with their connections by introducing people who they know will get along well. Two of my team members, Danielle and Lauren, met because Danielle’s charismatic brother brought them together.

This quality is part of the reason charismatic people are such sought after connections; they spread their social wealth.

Action Step:

Create a Relationship Action Plan. Do you want to level-up your networking game? I have a guide to improving your networking and a map for how to do it.

Step #10: Be a Professional Cheerleader

Researchers have found that highly charismatic people are often the best leaders in fast-paced environments because their infectious optimism helps keep their teams motivated during challenging times. This works in social situations as well. Rather than skeptically listening to people’s goals and ideas, charismatic people offer encouragement. In a professional setting, you want to find ways to encourage people while still holding them accountable. Make it a point to:

  • Reward good work.
  • Assign credit where credit is due.
  • Give genuine compliments.

Jane Howell studied different types of leaders. She found that when leaders with high charisma ratings led teams through activities, those groups not only performed better, but also interacted more successfully. Another study published in the Harvard Business Review found that charisma can be learned with practice, just like any other skill. The key is to have a plan. Don’t try all of these steps at once!

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Take the Charisma Quiz

How charismatic are you? Take this 5-minute quiz and see how your charisma ranks!

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