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Business and Finance

DIY charisma

Debbi Evans
Want serious stage presence? Fake it til you make it, says Olivia Fox Cabane, who's helped Silicon Valley’s introverted elite wield a bit more social clout

What’s the relationship between power and charisma?

If you look at which currencies we’re using today, there’s the currency of money, in today’s world the currency of information is front and centre. In ancient times, currencies were geared towards brute strength or physical beauty – male and female. Charisma is one of those currencies like intelligence, like information, that I think has always been highly effective. But this is the first time we have the toolbox to acquire the asset of charisma. In many ways, power is a result of all the assets that you have. I’d say that what has changed throughout the ages is which asset was most valuable when. Society puts more emphasis on the social graces than would Silicon Valley. So power is a changing, fluid metric. Depending on which environment you’re in (you should look at) who is the audience around you and what your strengths are.

According to your book, the judgements that we make in 17ms have a lot to do with very primal, hardwired reactions about whether people can hurt us. So I suppose one of the things that we are still assessing at a very subconscious level – that brute strength is still there, isn’t it? The power of that big physical presence.

Yes, however what people assess is more confidence that it is actual physical strength. We play Russian roulette; we infer. From confidence we infer that person has something to be confident about. This may or may not be correct but that first impression will have a primal theory effect that will linger. However, if you were in Silicon Valley and someone walked in with a great amount of confidence and physical strength, but opened their mouth and it was clear they didn’t have the [intelligence to back it up], they would lose status very quickly.

There’s a bit of a gender angle as well there, isn’t there. Is it harder for women to display that physical presence?

Yes, for a couple of reasons. From birth onwards with very few exceptions (the Scandinavian countries are one of them) it’s fascinating to see how unconsciously parents treat babies differently in terms of expectations around appearance and behaviour, and how soon the emphasis of a nice appearance and being nice is placed in girls. In boys, it’s the emphasis on achieving and accomplishing. Then of course there’s the societal expectation around how much [female power] that particular society is comfortable with. If you look for instance in Saudi Arabia, where a woman isn’t even allowed to drive, quite obviously a woman exhibiting strong physical power is not going to be acceptable.

The cultural examples are really interesting. I know it’s easy to stereotype when you ask these questions, but I can totally see how your book has done well in Silicon Valley. But in Britain…I’m not so sure the teachings would always work. We’re a bit more cynical.

I’d even say they would backfire. You absolutely have to adapt [the exercises] to your environment. If we’re talking about the gorilla one [adopting a broad powerful posture, taking up more space], that one will work in most Western countries. However, I would give a lot less eye contact in Japan and some other Asian countries than I would in a Western country. Asian countries have a very different attitude to how much eye contact is acceptable, and who can look at whom in terms of rank and seniority.

If you’re looking at Britain specifically the one which probably needs changing would probably be the voice. Americans simply speak louder than most of the Brits I’ve encountered. You do still want a rich, resonant, warm voice but you want to cut the volume in half compared to what an American would use.

Going back to the gender theme – you say that one of the ways power is quickly killed in body language is by excessive nodding and assurances, and women tend to do that more. Why is that and how do we stop doing that?

I think it’s because we have this deeply ingrained need to make other people feel good which men have much less and we feel that we’re responsible for being the peacemakers. Behavioural research has shown that women nod to show encouragement and understanding, men nod to show agreement. That’s one of the biggest problems you have is that a woman will be nodding along, she wants to show that she is listening and wants to encourage the other person. In the reverse, when someone isn’t nodding along there’s a concern they’re not interested when in fact it simply means they haven’t agreed yet.

It’s a fine line, though – a big part of exuding warmth is about making people feel good.

Nodding is only one of the many non-verbal signals we have to show that we are paying attention and listening. Much of the time when women nod throughout a conversation they are really doing it to alleviate their own sense of discomfort that the person in front of you may not be feeling encouraged enough.  We’re running away from the awkwardness.

Is it possible to succeed in business without being charismatic?

I’m sure it is. Someone who is brilliant enough will go a long way on the force of their brilliance alone if the environment is conducive to that, and someone who is not charismatic but hardworking enough may do te same. Charisma just happens to be a very good factor for making a great impression in a short amount of time. The reason it’s becoming increasingly important is that we’re in a culture where we have less and less time to make a bigger first impression. We’re competing with so much more.

If you know someone has been through charisma training, even if they deploy the techniques without thinking, I worry there’d be a resistance from the audience because it wouldn’t feel authentic. You’d know the other person would be changing the interaction with you for a particular outcome, and it would be tainted as a result.

It’s a very valid concern. One of the points that I belabour most when starting out in the book is you can’t actually fake charisma. Warmth is one of the most critical parts of those interactions, and warmth really can’t be faked. It’s so dependent on body language, and as the book touches on again and again you can’t fake body language. You actually have to feel the emotion in order for it to come out. If the emotion is not genuine, people will pick up on it immediately.

There’s a lovely quote of yours which refers to this process as “playing chemist with your brain” – which chemicals are involved in the process of being charismatic?

The second book I’m in the process of writing is all about that – neuroplasticity. It’s exciting – we might do a PBS special where the audience are equipped with mini EEG machines and rewire their brains live as they go through the process. It’s this idea that just as we focused on body shaping and body sculpting, we’re now getting into the era of neuroshaping and neurosculpting. It’s not just that you want to play chemist with your own brain, it’s that you want to physically reshape your brain at will. Have you see the movie Limitless? It’s that, but in real life.

The bad behaviours that people exhibit are often a result of them trying to quiet the pain inside their own heads. If you give them ways to internally restore peace without having to project their internal violence outwards you’re really doing a favour to the world.  So if you’re looking at the most important chemical changes, the two critical ones are being able to access calm and confidence. Warmth is important but generally less of an urgent one when you’re in critical situations. Gratitude is something that hits pretty much all of those at once. That’s as close to a silver bullet as I have.

There’s a real element of zen buddhism in your teachings, but with a practical, commercial spin. Is that deliberate?

I’ve been a practising meditator for many years, but as you see in the book I do tend to be ruthlessly pragmatic. The only things that go into the book are things that have a scientific background and are effective. The book is a hodge podge of all the fields that I knew and played in – I extracted the best tidbits. So you will find a lot of eastern stuff, but there’s also a lot of sports psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy too.

The Charisma Myth is out now on Portfolio Penguin. Image credit: IRRI Photos

Behavioural research has shown that women nod to show encouragement and understanding, men nod to show agreement. That’s one of the biggest problems

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