Charisma is a set of behaviors that have nothing to do with physical beauty.
This is good news for those of us who aren't fashion models. You don't need plastic surgery to do these things. Just practice.
Here are the elements of charisma based on research done by Howard Friedman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside.
Think Kramer of "Seinfeld" fame when he slides through the door of Jerry's apartment and discovers something surprising.
Or your grandmother who throws her arms in the air and bends her knees when she sees you after a long absence.
Or my dog, Little Bear, who dances for joy when I come home at the end of the day.
People enjoy being around people (and animals) with a vocabulary of expressive gestures. Of course you don't want to be clownish at work and act like Kramer, but gestures that are responsive to what's happening in the moment and appropriate to the occasion are winning and appealing.
I know a certain VP of sales within the wealth management industry who inherited a laugh from his father that, once you hear it, will stay with you forever. He was gifted by the genetic gods.
The mischievousness and goofiness of the sound strikes the funny bone. A smile blossoms on my face whenever I hear it.
On the other hand, I've twice been asked by male executives to do something about the "unattractive laugh" of a female direct report. I turned down the jobs, but laughter can be aversive as well as attractive. Whether you are man or woman, braying like a donkey in a restaurant or from down the hall will not win you any friends.
Vocal expression of emotion
Isn't it nice when you call someone on the phone and their voice communicates pleasure and excitement when they hear your name? Even if it's subtle, it makes you feel appreciated.
A lively, expressive voice is one of the most powerful instruments in the world, especially when it is resonant and sparkles with changes of pitch, speed, and volume.
This does not mean Clintonesque feel-copping. It means appropriate social touching on the upper arm, shoulder, or hand. Waiters who are skilled at this make better tips.
You may remember that President George Bush shocked the Western World when he came up behind Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, who was seated in a chair, and rubbed her shoulders. She was horrified.
A light touch on the upper arm can signal warmth and friendliness, which may be comforting to the person you're with.
Pleasure from being the center of attention
While many people are ambivalent about being the center of attention, some come to life and are at their best in the limelight.
In fact, many great actors are not particularly extroverted or good company, but stand them up in front of a crowd and their wattage burns brighter.
When the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman died recently, my wife said something interesting: When the camera was on, he seemed to be able to bring his nerves to the surface of his skin and pour his feelings into the lens of the camera. For him, that ability must have been a pleasurable experience — a discharge of his inner turbulence.
Ronald Reagan was called "The Great Communicator" in part because of his expressive face. He could twinkle on cue, like all good Irishmen.
Our faces attract most of the eye contact given us by our listeners, and the more information they can read there, the more they pay attention and comprehend not only the ideas, but the emotional meaning of our words as well.
It's my experience that many people in a position of power have closed faces — poker faces — and use their facial inscrutability to intimidate. Closed faces are cold and hard to read, while open faces are warm and expressive, and warm beats cold nine times out of 10.
Those of us with long hair, male or female, should also be careful not to hide our foreheads with bangs. That forehead is valuable real estate — a billboard — for communicating a range of emotions.
Outgoing with strangers
In a survey that Sims Wyeth & Co. conducted a few years ago, those who self-identified as introverts preferred the company of extroverts. And extroverts felt the same way.
Let's face it, it's fun to be in the company of someone who can easily break down the barriers between people and create a lively social experience.
I admire people who are able to go up to strangers and engage them in real conversation. I'm not talking about backslapping and amped-up, testosterone-driven horse play. What I like is directness, openness, and the ability to listen.
Capable of a seductive glance
A seductive glance is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. I've seen it on babies. I've certainly seen it on my wife (she's very skilled at this). And I have to confess that as a teenager, I practiced my seductive glance for hours in front of the mirror. It was sort of a hazy, hooded-eye cock of the head.
William Blake, the great English poet (and water-colorist) wrote:
We are led to believe in lies
When we see with, not through the eyes
A good seductive glance is similarly made not with the eyes, but through the eyes. It penetrates the seen and the seer.
Good at pantomime
Pantomime differs from kinesthetic responsiveness in that it is more intentional and sustained. Pantomime is the ability to act out a narrative, to use the body to help listeners visualize what you're saying. It's also related to having an expressive face, in that the more your audience can read in your body language, the more they grasp your meaning and enjoy your company.
I see many young people telling each other stories and acting out what happened while saying, "He went like... and I was like.. and then he went..." without any words to describe the action, just pantomime, and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
Using your hands to help describe a point in your presentation is acceptable and effective. In fact, your listeners can lose up to 75% of your meaning if you don't use your hands. Just make sure that you gesture and don't gesticulate. What's the difference? Gestures are deliberate, shaped and sustained for a purpose, whereas gesticulation can make you look like you're being attacked by a swarm of bees.
Now, here are two $64,000 questions. First, can charisma be learned? And second, should it be learned, or is it just manipulation and phoniness?
To the first question, I say, yes! I believe charisma can be learned. Just as we learn good manners — to say please and thank you in order to make ourselves more appealing to others — we can learn to be more charismatic.
To the second question, should you try to learn how to do some of these things, I say, absolutely yes! As long as you're not trying to harm or deceive anyone. What makes a person a manipulator is not her technique, but her purpose.
And by the way, you can acquire new behaviors if the reason you want them is important enough to you. Is it easy? No. But is it doable? You bet it is.