Some people just seem to have it: The way they communicate energizes others and makes people to want to be around them. They have what’s commonly referred to as charisma.
This is no small matter, as any of the U.S. presidential candidates can tell you this time of year as the primary races heat up. Charisma improves the likelihood of success in almost every area of life. Charismatic leaders are able to inspire others to take what they say seriously and act on it.
So it’s no surprise that charisma has fascinated social scientists for decades. Thanks to their research, we now know that charisma is less an inborn trait than a quality everyone can develop, by practicing a few key behaviors until they become habitual.
Charismatic leaders exude confidence. Numerous studies have shown that when someone acts confidently, others give more weight to what they say. In fact, Carnegie Mellon researchers have found that displaying confidence is even more influential in establishing trust than past performance.
What’s interesting about the science of confidence is that even if you don’t feel confident, faking it effectively can help kick your mind into gear. In other words, when you purposefully display body language that exudes confidence, chances are you’ll actually start to feel as confident as you’re acting.
People like being around charismatic people because it makes them feel valued. That’s because charismatic leaders have trained themselves to be attentive to those they interact with. Not surprisingly, numerous scientific studies have found that eye contact heavily influences likability, trustworthiness, and attractiveness.
Charismatic people focus their gaze and listen so intently that people are often moved by the experience. The reason eye contact is such an important part of charisma is because it both conveys and creates attentiveness: What you fix your eyes on is typically what your mind concentrates on. Simply meeting someone’s gaze can help you listen better to what they’re saying.
Charismatic people are often described as warm and approachable. Research has shown that when people perceive you to be warm, they’re more likely to trust you and embrace your ideas.
Like making eye contact, flashing a smile is another obvious way to build charisma. But it’s only recently that researchers have begun to understand why. Studies have shown that smiling is linked to our ideas about how approachable and competent someone is.
In fact, Dr. Robert Zajonic has even found that facial muscles contract to produce a smile, and blood flow to the brain increases, lowering the brain’s temperature. This naturally produces feelings of pleasure and sets a positive mood. What’s more, smiling activates mirror neurons in the brain, which causes the smile to be reciprocated.
Charismatic people are passionate. Being around them motivates others to act. This positive energy is one of the qualities that makes charisma so alluring, but there’s a science behind it.
Research has shown that strong emotions are contagious, thanks to what behavioral scientists call “emotional cognition.” Dr. Elaine Hatfield, the preeminent researcher in this area, has conducted many studies demonstrating how people “catch” the emotions of others. For instance, if you have a coworker who’s constantly negative, you’ll often find that you’ll start to think more pessimistically when you’re around them. Likewise, being around someone who’s passionate and optimistic is likely to inspire you to think and behave that way, too.
Charismatic people talk about ideas that are bigger than themselves. Sociologist Max Weber, whose study of charisma sparked scholarly attention in the field throughout the 20th century, noted that having a clear vision for the future and boldly advancing it was a defining factor in charisma.
Steve Jobs’s life offers a legendary example of this phenomenon. While recruiting Pepsi CEO John Scully, Jobs pointedly asked him, “Do you want to sell sugared water the rest of your life, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Scully later confessed that he found the challenge too captivating to turn down.
Oddly enough, some leaders are perceived to be charismatic only when they’re talking about a cause they care about. It isn’t so much that they constantly radiate charisma, as that an idea inspires them so much that they exude those qualities when it really matters. This might be splitting hairs, but it points up the reality that having a cause to animate you is crucial for charismatic leaders.
Everyone doubts themselves and their abilities once in a while. That’s so common, in fact, that psychologists have given it a name: impostor syndrome. Besides impeding performance, it also kills charisma.
To be sure, charismatic people have fears and anxieties, but they don’t allow them to sabotage their interactions. One of the best ways to boost your self-confidence, according to a growing body of research, is to first reflect on how you’ve succeeded in the past. Then announce to yourself that those past wins are evidence of how well you’ll perform in a similar upcoming endeavor. This simple exercise has been shown to prime your mind to behave in ways that wind up proving your confidence right.
Why do people enjoy conversing with charismatic leaders? Because they ask insightful questions that guide others toward sharing things about themselves.
Harvard researchers studied how sharing information about ourselves impacts our brains. The participants who did showed greater neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. That research confirmed that our brains are literally wired to enjoy sharing information about ourselves. These good feelings shape not just our self-perception, but our experience of the conversation itself.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about charisma–the thing uniting all of these findings–is that it’s really about others: The secret to becoming charismatic is less about you and more about how you make others feel.