Charisma – that mysterious, ambiguous, effervescent quality that separates the nerds and the chumps from the George Clooneys and James Bonds. While a lucky few are born with it, it is something that even the Urkels of the world can practice and develop.
All charisma really is: a collection of behaviors that make you appealing to others. From interviews to sales pitches to business relationships, whether or not you purposefully develop these behaviors will determine the trajectory of your career.
Here are eight of those behaviors that you can easily begin to practice, and that have a huge impact on whether or not you possess the quality of "charisma".
#1: Build Your Circle of Friends
Your mom might have told you that you are judged by the company you keep. As usual, she was right, and she still is. On top of that, research has also shown that a child's friends have a much greater impact on how he or she turns out than anything else, including genetics or family environment. This phenomenon extends through adulthood.
If you surround yourself with charismatic, likeable, confident, and responsible friends, not only will they push you to be the same kind of person, but when people see you with that group of people, they will assume you're the same way even if you're not. This goes for professional as well as personal relationships – do you think about the kind of people you hang out with at work? Are they known for being slackers or complainers?
If you honestly assess your circle of personal friends and find it to be lacking, it's either time to break out of your bubble and make some new friends, or make some tough choices about how you allocate your time. This doesn't mean you disown any of your friends who haven't had the same level of professional success as you; different people have different priorities in life, and I hope you have at least a few friends who chose differently from you on the career front.
What it does mean is that if you are surrounding yourself with people who consistently make bad choices, you need to confront them about it as a friend, and begin to purposefully focus your limited time resources on relationships that strengthen you and how other people see you.
#2: Think About What You Wear
I'm not going to spend much time here because it isn't complicated: wear clothes that fit, get rid of anything with a giant logo, and be classy, not trendy. Invest in a good tailor. It's been said that clothes make the man, and it's true – you're going to have a hard time being the charismatic person you want to be if your clothes say you're either a slob or a try hard.
#3: Learn the Art of Listening
The distinguishing characteristic of people who possess charisma is that they make you feel like you're the most important person in the world when you're talking to them. It's really not that hard to pull this off. When someone speaks to you, pause, visibly put down and turn away from whatever you're doing, and turn your body and your eyes to that person. Taking a split second to perform this little ritual makes all the difference in the world, communicating subtly but powerfully that you value the other person.
As you listen, consciously focus on what the other person has to say, responding to what they're saying with both your words and your body language. As long as they're speaking, do not look away. You've probably heard this a million times before, but it is a truly difficult task, and one that requires practice to perfect. If you don't have the time to truly listen, man up and say so – don't nod your head and hope they wrap up soon and go away. You're wasting not only your time, but also the opportunity to strengthen your reputation as someone worth talking to.
#4: Master the Art of Eye Contact
One of the things that people who personally knew Steve Jobs consistently bring up when they talk about him was his intense eye contact. Those who possess charisma have the ability to completely focus their attention on one thing (not just a person), and unbroken eye contact is a natural part of that focus. Again, this is something you are going to have to practice. This is the key: think of your eye contact as a resource just like time or money, and don't waste it on just anything. It is this conscious use of eye contact, not simply the ability to maintain it, that increases its value and therefore its power.
Bill Clinton is another master of eye contact. One trick he uses is that when he is finished talking to someone, he starts to move his body away before he breaks eye contact. His eyes "linger" for a moment before moving on, which finishes and cements their feeling that he is interested in and engaged with them. This can be creepy if not done correctly, so again, practice until it feels right.
#5: Manage Personal Space
This is probably the most ambiguous behavior, and the most difficult to master. Owning your personal space goes beyond things like keeping your legs apart when standing, or letting your arms rest outside rather than inside your body when sitting. Someone with charisma has command of his or her personal space. I'm not talking about demonstrating your authority or posturing aggressively; I'm talking about being aware of your personal space and that of others, and being able to comfortably and purposefully use it. Personal space management is highly dependent on movement. Similarly to eye contact, someone with charisma doesn't waste a lot of movement; he or she uses it purposefully, and understands the effects that each movement has.
I'm going to go a little unorthodox on this one and recommend Cesar Milan as an example of someone who has mastered this art. Dogs rely more on posturing and communicating ownership of space than people do, and it is fascinating to see how Cesar manipulates his personal space to accomplish his goals with the dogs he works with. Yes, I am arguing that watching Dog Whisperer will help your career.
#6: Be Aware of Body Language
We've already discussed eye contact and personal space management, but there are other aspects of body language that should be understood. For example, we often tend to think of body language as the result of our internal feelings, but the opposite is also true. We can change our mood simply by changing our body language. Don't look at the ground when you walk; keep your gaze straight ahead. Stand straight, and put your shoulders back. Again, this is probably something you've heard many times before, but it is interesting how you can purposefully change your mood by its application.
As another example, check out the videos below of some of the most recent presidential debates. Notice how when the candidates greet each other, Obama will not take his left arm off of Romney. This isn't a weird mannerism; it's highly purposeful. From the audience's perspective, the person on the right will always appear weaker because of the position of their hand. By patting Romney's arm, Obama is avoiding this imagery.
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To get you thinking more about what body language communicates (both yours and other people's), try this book as an introduction: What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro. Armed with this knowledge, start thinking about how you use body language, and adjust accordingly.
Side note: Attempting to use things like eye contact, personal space management, and body language can come off as awkward. Try not to force anything; instead, try to be purposefully aware of these things, and you will find yourself getting better at them as time goes on.
#7: Have Something to Say
A person who has charisma is first and foremost an amazing listener, but when they open their mouth, what comes out needs to be something worth hearing. A big part of the way you develop this skill is by listening to others – the best way to have something interesting to say is to listen to (meaning hear, understand, and remember) the experiences and perspectives of people who are different from you.
The written word is also your friend. Select your daily reading from a range of diverse sources. Use tools like Twitter, Quora, and Digg selectively. I cannot stress enough how important it is to cull useless news sources – simplify as you diversify. I recommend you include sources like Yahoo Weird News, Popular Science, and National Geographic as well as the Wall Street Journal.
#8: Master the Art of Storytelling
Along those same lines, how you say something is probably more important that what you say. Storytelling isn't just about recounting an event; anything you communicate will be more powerful if it is in the context of a story.
I personally feel that the best way to develop this skill is to start telling stories to children. Find a nephew or little cousin and practice telling them the story of Jack and the Beanstalk in a way that captures their attention - with descriptive details and enthusiasm. Children are great because they give you immediate feedback; they won't politely hang around pretending to listen if you get boring.
It's hard to resist the urge to remain aloof as you tell a story because doing so allows you to avoid looking dumb if you fail to capture anyone's interest. Storytelling is really about getting someone to share your feelings or perspective on a certain topic, and if you act like your feeling or perspective isn't anything great, there is no way you'll convince someone else it is.