What is Charisma, Anyway?

Charisma Audience

We talk about charisma a lot, particularly when we’re talking about leadership. It’s a quality we should aspire to as speakers, to help us inspire our audiences and gain support in our most important initiatives.

But when we try to actually define charisma, or talk about how to achieve it, we get into vague and elusive territory. We tend to attribute it to the luck of the draw—some people are just born with it.

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Executive communication expert Briar Goldberg disagrees. Charisma, she says, can be learned. According to Goldberg, we can train ourselves to be charismatic in any presentation by focusing on two things: engaging the audience and demonstrating passion for the subject at hand.

Engaging Your Audience

Engaging an audience begins with content. Look at your notes—are you simply giving a lecture or are you adding the kinds of supporting material that will resonate with a broader audience? Are you sharing stories and personal anecdotes to draw listeners in? Are you including some data for the mathematically minded in the audience? Citing interesting sources? As you look for the right mix, it might help to refresh your memory on the three types of persuasive appeals.

Off the page, are you making eye contact with your audience? Often, speakers manage nerves by focusing on their notes, scanning the crowd, or fixing their gaze on a point directly over the back row. But the audience will pick up on this disconnect and, likely, disengage. Goldberg recommends that speakers try to make direct eye contact with individual audience members for brief moments to help your listeners feel like you’re speaking directly to them.

(By the way, research has shown the sweet spot for holding eye contact with any given person is about 3 seconds.)

Demonstrating Your Passion

Have you ever paid close attention to a friend’s body language as she told you about something exciting that had just happened? Chances are she was standing up straight or even leaning toward you a little bit, her eyes were lit up, and her face and hands were animated.

Was her excitement contagious?

“Emotional contagion” is the concept that we can “catch” the feelings and moods of the people around us. If your friend was thrilled about the story she was telling, you likely couldn’t help but get on board.

The concept applies to our presentations as well. If we’re slumped over the podium, with our faces blank and our hands dangling limply by our sides, we can be sure our audience isn’t hanging on our every word. In fact, they’re probably wishing they could sneak out for a cup of coffee.

On the other hand, if we’re demonstrating our passion in our body language, the audience will catch on.

To get a sense of what this looks like, Goldberg recommends watching a video or two with the volume turned down. Can you tell how the speaker feels about his subject without listening to what he’s actually saying? So can your audience.

While charisma may have a reputation as something a speaker’s either got or not, the truth is it’s critical to keeping an audience engaged and involved. And the good news is that it’s a set of skills we can all develop.