Thoughts on "The Charisma Myth" book

I finished yet another self-help (audio) book. I think I am supposed to show some humility at this stage and remark how sceptical I should be of such books. Well, let’s just assume I’ve just done it and move on to a more interesting part: discussion of the actual book.

The book is called “The Charisma Myth” and is written by Olivia Fox Cabane. Olivia coaches business people who want to up their game (and become cool) and has quite a good intro video on her website.

The main thesis of the book that charisma is a learnable skill: most charismatic people just happen to stumble upon the correct behaviours when they grow up and get rewarded for them. And then she lists some studies to justify this worldview: however she doesn’t list that many. Anyway this worldview is exactly what I needed to hear to start working on own my skills.

The surprising part of charisma training is the fact that “presence” is a big part of it. Surprising because I originally associated impressive people with charisma. Turns out charismatic people tend to make you feel impressive/funny/interesting. And they do it by being fully present with you when they interact with you. They listen to your stories and try to relive your experience with you. Being fully present doesn’t mean being fully oblivious to the surroundings or pretending to be an active listener. It requires paying full attention to the words spoken and also noticing the surroundings. For example, if a loud laughter interrupts your conversation: remark on this and then try to return to the conversation by telling the interlocutor “you were saying…”. When it comes to the listening part, you should try to get to the bottom of the sentiment that is being said. Thinking about witty remarks, irrelevant tangents and preparing a reply before a speaker is finished speaking - all of it doesn’t count as being fully present. Needless to say, thinking about your worries or casually looking for a way out of a conversation are also massive turn-offs.

The way I interpret all of the above is that I have to make a concious call whether I am going to devote my full attention to the speaker at the situation or not even bother. It is totally acceptable to excuse myself and leave the conversation, but it is not acceptable to be only halfway in it. This means: no glancing over my smartphone or mulling over my own worries whilst interacting: I am either in or out. So far I have had great experience applying this technique: I am discovering how real-life interactions are so full of various subtleties. People’s faces, voice intonations, body language: all of it is so interesting to observe. It is actually a bit disappointing that some people prefer to turn to chatting online via their smartphones during the social events: they just don’t appreciate the beauty of real-life display of emotions.

When I was reading the book I had one of those “click!” moments: one of those moments when things start to make sense. A friend of mine1 confided in me relatively recently. He told me he likes a girl because of who he is around her. I could instantly relate to this. I am starting to suspect that he makes an effort by being around her and she rewards him with laughter or meaningful replies. Such constant rewards encourages him to be “on” and he loves it. Appears if you want people to like you, you should make them feel impressive; don’t try to impress them.

Another interesting takeaway from the book is the importance of body language. The content doesn’t matter as much as delivery. If you want people to appreciate a funny story that you are telling them, you have to relive it yourself. Your body language, your voice intonations are impossible to control consciously: there’s just too much stuff to think about. However you can deploy a visualisation technique, i.e. remember what it is like to be funny, aspirational, etc if you want to grab people’s attention. It starts to make sense now that one of the most charismatic people I know is an actor. After watching wonderful storytellers time and time again the only thing in common I’ve picked up is how alive they are when they share their stories. Their faces lit up, their hands move, their voice changes amplitude and pauses appropriately. These observations spurred me on to take up improvisation classes. I had my first class last week and I absolutely loved it.

The book then goes into into disambiguating charisma by identifying 4 types of charisma. The author identified a type of charisma that inspires people (“visionary”), a type that makes people follow your orders (“authority”). Other two are: focus and kindness. I described focus charisma above, however kindness charisma is also worth remarking on. Kindness charisma makes you come across as generous and well-meaning. It is especially important when you have to give somebody negative feedback, however it is incompatible with authority charisma. Oh my god, I didn’t even know that there are so many charismas!

The book finishes with remarking that there are certain downside to being charismatic. People might start to envy you or feel like you are taking credit for their work. Then strategies on how one should deal with such situations are offered. The book is also full of interesting exercises. Overall I was really impressed by it and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I am finishing this post quite abruptly because I literally must run!

  1. Seriously no me this time. I promise.