Behavior > Birth: How to build charisma if you don’t feel you have it

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Just want to say thanks to some people who helped me on this article: Ronnie Higgins, Pierre Le Poulain, Jon McGreevy, Shannon Arnold, Brian Sun

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TL;DR

Charismatic people find it easier to be influential in whatever they’re doing. It’s a misnomer to assume that some people are ‘born charismatic.’

Instead, charisma is made up of a series of behaviours that you can actually replicate no matter who you are.

SaaS marketers can greatly benefit from practicing these behaviours on a day to day basis because it helps them to grease the organizational and social wheels necessary to bring their marketing strategies to life.

But always remember: true charisma comes from a place of self-confidence, empathy to others and that even highly charismatic people still need to deliver good work.

Charisma is a career multiplier. High charisma people cause people to feel trust, accept their recommendations more readily and exude a high degree of magnetism that lowers social resistance and helps them achieve more.

Most people know when a person has a high level of charisma. But what they don’t know is how they got it.

The default assumption that the majority of people make is that charisma is some innate quality. They see film stars or politicians and think: those people have it and I don’t and I will never have it.

Fortunately, this is the wrong assumption.

In fact: Charisma is a set of behaviours.

And like any set of behaviours it can be learned and practised.

In this post, I will share:

  • What people mean when they talk about charisma
  • Why charismatic people make good marketing leaders
  • Techniques you can learn and use to become more charismatic

By the end of this article, you’ll have a series of ideas for building charisma that you can begin to use today so you can start seeing the impact of those new behaviours right away.

What people mean when they talk about charisma

Ask anyone at a party what they mean by charismatic and they’ll most likely paint a picture of someone who is loud, demonstrates a high degree of positivity or powerful.

But that’s not charisma. That’s a character type.

Common responses to the question of who is a charismatic person might include Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Jerry Seinfeld.

These people were/are all charismatic. But not all famous people are also charismatic.

True charisma comes from the combination of confidence, clarity, focus and empathy.

Think about a time when you were drawn to someone and left the situation feeling deeply positive or reassured. How did the person you were speaking to behave when you spoke?

Maybe as you reflect on that, you think: they really understood me. Or they listened so beautifully. Or they gave me strong advice. Or ‘I really liked that person.’

These are common things to experience but it is less common to meet someone who consistently makes you feel that way.

These people feel magnetic.

Although they may well be loud, positive people, they don’t need to be.

It is their charisma that makes them feel magnetic. You are drawn to them and maybe until you read this article you didn’t know why.

You’re about to learn how you can build this charismatic magnetism in your own life. But before we do that, let’s think about why charismatic people make good marketing leaders.

Why charismatic people make good marketing leaders

Modern marketing leaders often find themselves in difficult commercial environments where they have to earn buy in from their ideas, win budget for their strategy and, in general, persuade people to like them.

The talent market for SaaS marketers in particular is deeply competitive and given the choice between joining an organization with a charismatic marketing leader and one who is about as magnetic as a Wednesday afternoon energy slump, you’re going to be swayed by the former.

Here’s a quote I love from Olivia Fox Cabane’s excellent book The Charisma Myth – the book that originally began unlocking the concept of charisma for me:

When we first meet someone, we instinctively assess whether that person is a potential friend or foe and whether they have the power to enact those intentions. Power and intentions are what we’re aiming to assess. “Could you move mountains for me? And would you care to do so?” To answer the first question, we try to assess how much power he or she has. To answer the second question, we try to assess how much he or she likes us. When you meet a charismatic person, you get the impression that they have a lot of power and they like you a lot.

All things being equal (and, yes, I appreciate that they rarely are!) charisma gives marketers the extra couple inches that makes the difference between a slam dunk and hitting the rim on the jump shot. (Disclaimer: we don’t play basketball in my country… I hope this one works)

In other words, it’s the difference between:

People with low charisma often struggle to get intrapersonal work done as easily as people with high charisma
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For clarity: I’m not saying that uncharismatic people don’t ever get anything done. All I’m saying is that adding charisma into the conversation can really grease the wheels and create the momentum necessary to overcome organizational challenges

Techniques you can use to become more charismatic

Throughout this article, I’ve been bringing the conversation back to the concept that charisma is really a set of behaviours rather than something that people are born with.

But what does that mean in practice and how can you build these behaviours into your day to day career?

In this section, we’ll look at some of these and I’ll give you real world examples of SaaS marketing leaders who I really like and how they exhibit these behaviours.

But first: Human behaviour is deeply complex and different behaviours work in different contexts. So let’s use another framework from Olivia Fox Cabane’s book to frame our commentary here:

Charismatic behaviour can be broken down into three core elements: presence, power, and warmth.

In addition to that fantastic definition, I will say this: you cannot fake charisma entirely.

True charisma comes from a place of self-confidence and empathy towards others.

Even highly charismatic people still need to deliver good work.

Let’s look at some examples of how you can build behaviours into your own life by improving each of the following areas:

  1. Presence
  2. Power
  3. Warmth
Caution

Quick caveat before I go on:

Never use charisma as a way to coerce others or make them feel small. Instead, build eachother up!

Presence

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Key takeaways for building charisma through presence:
  1. Make every voice heard – giving other people an opportunity to speak and share will automatically raise your charisma levels. People love people who make others heard
  2. Be aware of what message your eyes are conveying – tight eyes, strongly held will convey skepticism, tight eyes loosely held convey empathy
  3. Remove potential distractors as early as possible – being at ease will make you appear more charismatic than you might feel

When people talk about charisma, they’ll often talk immediately about power behaviours because that is the broad social narrative.

But when you ask them how they felt talking to a charismatic person, there’s an almost universal answer: ‘I felt like I was the only person in the world.’

Everyone wants to be appreciated and so being present in the moment and fostering an environment where everyone feels like this is really a crucial and under appreciated part of charisma.

There are three main ways that you can do this in my experience:

  1. Make every voice heard
  2. Keep a close watch of your own eyes
  3. Weed out distractors as quickly as possible

Make every voice heard

If the goal is to make everyone feel like the only person in the world, the shortest path to that is to make sure that they feel heard.

Some of the most charismatic people I know are fiercely intelligent and talented – but they use their charisma to allow others to speak louder than them.

In the process, they build their own charisma.

Ladies and gentlemen: it’s a flywheel!

What does it look like to make every voice heard as a marketing leader?

One of the most obvious ways is to facilitate contributions from every team member on your next Zoom call.

Many people find it difficult to interject either because they’re intimidated, feel powerless or maybe just because that’s not how they’re wired.

It’s particularly important that you facilitate contributions from people who may be underrepresented in corporate environments.

It’s easy to speak up if you’re a white guy (like me) born into a world that elevates my opinion with very little critical assessment.

It’s a lot harder if you’re a woman or a person of colour, for example.

Keep a close watch of your own eyes

One of the most mystifying charisma building tips I have ever come across is this: make your eyes narrow.

I know that sounds like absolutely nonsensical advice but if you’d like to see this in action, watch how Bill Clinton addresses each audience member in this breakdown from the channel Charisma on Command (so weird, so bingeworthy!):

Why does this work?

I think that there are two reasons:

  1. When you narrow your eyes, your cheeks are naturally raised creating a ‘softer’ gaze – people find this disarming but comforting
  2. It shows focus – when you narrow your eyes, you create a narrower field of vision for yourself. People notice this subconsciously. You are more focused on them when your eyes are narrower – whether you’re speaking or listening, this is helpful

Your eyes can actually do a lot of the work of getting people to buy into what you’re talking about. Whether you’re hoping to soften a conversation by narrowing your eyes or otherwise.

For example, Rand Fishkin (hi, Rand!) has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen and I don’t know if he has ever noticed this.

I’m also not the only one who has noticed. When I initially shared a draft of this article with some friends, one of them said: “Yes! This has stood out to me a lot in his office hours. It feels like he’s staring into my soul.”

He frequently uses his eyes to add texture, power or softness to his point – and coupled with incredible insight and likeability, I believe this is one of the many cues that make up his incredibly persuasive communication style.

For example, this freeze frame is taken from 3 seconds into a video he posted on his Twitter just the other day. Before you scroll down and watch it, or I tell you, what do you think is the prevailing message of the first 10-15 seconds?

It’s doubt.

Here’s the original so you can see how effective it is:

Rand is expressing skepticism about a core idea that people (himself included) have placed great emphasis on in the past.

And it’s extremely relatable. Even if you don’t agree, it’s hard to disagree with Rand’s face.

If he said this with a straight face, without moving his eyes as much as he does, it wouldn’t be half as credible a presentation of the argument.

So be careful of what you’re doing with your eyes when you’re speaking to others.

General tips:

  • Are you trying to get people to change their mind on their negative assessment of your strategy? State their argument back to them with tight eyes
  • Do you want to make sure that your team member who is struggling to deliver on results feels listened to? Narrow your eyes, soften your gaze

Weed out distractors as quickly as possible

It’s not just your eyes that control your presence. It’s your whole body.

While your mind may be all over the place and no-one can really tell, your body is an extremely noticeable chunk of flesh and guts. When it’s doing something weird, people notice and start to make judgements about how you’re feeling.

The biggest cause of ‘doing something weird’ is discomfort.

When your body is uncomfortable, it’s hard to come across as charismatic which nixes all the benefits of charisma.

Let’s think about a typical marketing job and the discomforts that may be involved:

  • Mental discomfort such as imposter syndrome is frequently seen visibly by frequent fidgeting in the chair you’re sitting in or not controlling the movement of your hands (we’ll come to those in a moment). Your line manager thinks something must be up because you look deeply uneasy.
  • You’re working remotely. You choose to work in a cafe. It’s a sunny day. The sun gets in your eyes on a call with the C-Suite at your company. You are distracted, uncomfortable, a little hot, can’t see your notes, your skin looks clammy. Womp womp. Everyone notices and your big presentation lacks impact.
  • Timing is also a big distraction. You’re doing back to back meetings all afternoon. But every meeting overruns. By the time you get to your final meeting you’re absolutely wiped out. Plus, now you’re like 15 minutes late. The time is a distraction and you end up trying to rush through the whole agenda. No-one leaves feeling clear on the next steps.

Those are all charisma-killing scenarios that you could avoid by cutting out distractors quickly.

For example, even though you may feel deep imposter syndrome, making sure to adjust the chair to a height that is comfortable, not spinning around too frequently if you’re on a desk chair and making a conscious choice about what to do with your hands in advance could raise your charisma levels.

Similarly, controlling your working environment by making sure you have blinds/curtains in place to block out the sun and a good light that you can use to light your face if necessary will cut out your sweaty forehead woes.

Placing limits on the number of meetings people can book with you in one day or leaving a 15 minute buffer between calls can give you a space to breathe between moments when you need to be present in the conversation.

The easiest way to improve your ‘presence’ charisma is to be prudent about removing distractions in advance.

Next time you need to portray a feeling of confidence or get someone on side, ask yourself: what would make me the most comfortable in this situation?

Power

Power is the dimension of charisma that people tend to think about most naturally when they’re picturing a charismatic person.

The classic assumption is that a person’s dominance is what gives them charisma. But I believe the often is more commonly true: people become dominant because they exude charisma. After all, people are more willing to give way to people that they find magnetic.

Nowhere is power as a dimension of charisma more clearly seen than in meetings. And, let’s face it, marketers attend a lot of meetings. Even if they’re in an org with low- to no-meetings, the likelihood is there’s some element of video communication which follows all the same rules.

But remember: Never use your charisma to make another person feel small.

That being clear, let’s look at some of the ways that you can build charisma through the dimension of power.

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Key takeaways for building charisma through power:
  1. Consider speaking early in a meeting but use the chance to get buy in on the agendaLighten the mood of any meeting you’re in – don’t dive head first into business
  2. Body language matters – small signals like sitting straight but easy or making sure that people can see your palms when you’re gesturing will likely influence their perception of you positively

Speak early to set a clear agenda

Because we’re chaotic creatures who need leadership to bring out our best qualities when in group situations, it’s usually the person who speaks first in a meeting who ends up being remembered.

My advice to you: even if it’s to welcome everyone before turning the call back to the floor, speak as early as possible on the call and use that attention to clarify the agenda and aims of the call if you want people to notice your charisma more naturally.

There are three reasons that speaking early in the meeting is important:

First, you get to assert a level of confidence that people find reassuring and helpful.

If you’re clear and warm in your opening comments on a call, video or meeting, people are more likely to notice your natural charisma and be more generous to you in the rest of the call

Second, you get to set the agenda of the call

Most organizations don’t send out agendas before a call.

That means that there’s almost never an agenda.

If you need to get things done, you can prioritize your items before asking others what they need to get done.

This sets you up as both focused and considerate.

All of these small signals matter for people’s perception of your character and charisma.

Third, you get to set the tone of the call.

Tone has a surprising impact on the outcome of a call.

I was once in two calls in the same day where two different people needed to deliver bad news.:

  1. The person who owned the first call dived straight into business as soon as people had joined the call – You could see the faces of everyone on the call drop. They ended up being deeply unreceptive to the bad news and the general mood on the call was poor.
  2. On the second call, the person leading took the time to smile, make jokes and banter with everyone as they joined the call – They exuded confidence even though they knew they would ultimately deliver bad news. The result was that the people receiving the bad news were disappointed but the reaction to the news was much softer.

I tell you this because your team members, as great as they likely are, will get it wrong.

On the other hand, you are deeply aware of the importance of the early contributions to the meeting in setting the tone. Do it!

Everyone will thank you for warming up the room, call, meeting, video or whatever else.

Zoom call etiquette

Following on from the speaking early, let’s just dive deeper into Zoom call etiquette.

The first thing behaviour that increases perception of charisma on zoom calls is when you take the time to get buy in from everyone on a call. That’s because it can be quite challenging to actually have a conversation with more than 2 people at a time on a Zoom call.

Here’s what I like to do:

  1. At the start, I always set the agenda by saying: “I’d like to cover off xyz in this meeting and by the end I’d like to abc goal” – this way people instantly sense a feeling of leadership and are confident that I’m not wasting their time
  2. Then I say: “What else do we want to cover off on this call?” – because I’ve also been on the receiving end of this question, I know that people perceive this as a person who is not afraid to hear others out. That is a likeable quality. Confidence is correlated with charisma.
  3. Finally, I say: “Great. So we’re going to cover off XYZ, LMN and by the end of the session the goal is to ABCDEF. Is that fair?” – asking ‘is that fair’ makes everyone on the call agree or amend the statement. Again, you’re demonstrating a level of power that people perceive as cooperative rather than coercive and most participants will chalk up your charisma tally in their mind on that basis

The second behaviour that oozes charisma is your physical appearance and surroundings on a call.

What are you doing with your hands?

When I initially drafted this article, I thought that I might end up writing a section on how body language improves or impacts your charisma.

But it felt too obvious: of course if you look strong or you straighten your shoulders/back and smile people will tend to perceive you as more authoritative.

Our monkey brains are difficult to tame – and the biggest monkey is normally in charge.

Be a big monkey! But be nice.

Still, I do think it is worth mentioning the hands in relation to their ability to convey charisma.

I’ll point out two specific things.

The first one is that if you are trying to persuade someone of something, it is better to use open hands, palms facing the other person where possible with firm but not rigid wrists.

Does that sound weirdly specific?

Absolutely.

Does it sound creepy as heck?

You bet!

But it also works.

I’m once again going to point you to my weirdest YouTube crush, Charisma on Command. In this video, Chris Evans becomes more likeable and trustworthy just by paying attention to his ‘hand language’ – it probably also helps that he’s a ridiculously good looking film star too but shhh.

The second thing that you can do to use your hands to be more charismatic is to be generally more aware of what you’re doing with them.

There is little that dampens charisma more than a person who doesn’t know what to do with their hands and so they continually move, pick, reposition their hands.

It makes you look nervous and, once again, as a species we tend to assume that nervous people have something to hide and distrust them.

Instead, make conscious, timely movements with your hands. Gesticulate smoothly and not too often.

If at any time you’re aware that you’re doing a lot with your hands, I recommend just folding them loosely in front of you, as if you’re praying (but keep your eyes open, obviously!)

Warmth

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Key takeaways for building charisma through power:
  1. You can’t hack warmth – Warmth is built by genuinely appreciating the value of others
  2. Focus on being genuine
  3. Avoid cynicism

Perhaps my favourite area where you can improve your charisma is in developing a feeling of warmth in your relationships.

Why is it my favourite? Because unlike all of the other behaviours, it’s the hardest to fake but simplest to improve.

I also believe that warmth can carry you much further than, say, power.

A person who I deeply admire – and also a friend! – is Len Markidan. Len is a beautiful example of how warmth of character can make a person highly charismatic. I believe this so much that I did a podcast episode on how it impacted his work.

If you ask anyone in SaaS marketing, ‘Do you know Len Markidan?’ almost certainly they’ll tell you that they do and that they remember when he helped them with xyz problem they were facing.

What are some of the hallmarks of charismatic warmth:

  • You leave the conversation wanting to continue the conversation
  • You may feel like you suddenly have a shared in-joke about a topic
  • You feel encouraged to pursue some professional or personal goal
  • You actively look for an opportunity to follow up

The best thing I can say to help you become a warmer person is this:

Genuinely care.

When you genuinely care about others, they will be naturally drawn to your charisma and, subsequently, to you.

Much of our work as marketers is transactional: give me your email, I'll give you this thing my company made.

But people who exhibit high levels of charisma barely have to ask for that stuff. They are received warmly by default.

Unlike presence and power there aren’t really any life hacks.

You can’t hack warmth.

It’s just a matter of fostering a feeling of curiosity about the people you encounter and responding with kindness, hope and encouragement.

Although, that being said, one way that you can add a little pep is by being funny without being mean.

A good example of this is Amanda Natividad who frequently uses humour on her Twitter posts to highlight deeply relatable ideas that other people fail to communicate because they’re too cold about them.

Here, for example, she’s giving a piece of feedback to people who write newsletters:

The cold way that she could have said this would have been like:

STOP SENDING ME SO MANY NEWSLETTERS PLZ

But that wouldn't have been as effective, funny or, ultimately, warm.

Instead, the phrasing here is funny and helps her point to come across naturally. And judging by her, frankly, stratospheric growth rate in followers online, it’s clear that this warm humour is a constant in her ability to be magnetic as a person.

In closing

Charismatic people find it easier to be influential in whatever they’re doing. It’s a misnomer to assume that some people are ‘born charismatic.’

Instead, charisma is made up of a series of behaviours that you can actually replicate no matter who you are.

SaaS marketers can greatly benefit from practicing these behaviours on a day to day basis because it helps them to grease the organizational and social wheels necessary to bring their marketing strategies to life.

Trying them all out at once may be a challenge for you. But there’s no reason you can’t look at your calendar and choose one to try every few days. See what fits!

But always remember: true charisma comes from a place of self-confidence, empathy to others and that even highly charismatic people still need to deliver good work.

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