The Charisma Myth: You CAN Become More Charismatic

There’s a scene in the movie Wedding Crashers where Vince Vaughn sits down with a priest.

The priest approaches him in the breakfast nook, and says “Hello, son. You okay?”

Vaughn’s character, obviously distressed about recent events, retorts, “Not now, Father. Please. No offense to ya. We might be on different wavelengths. “

After a brief pause, Vaughn continues:

“Think you’d just be spinning your wheels with me, but…have a little bit of a sacrament here. No one likes to drink alone.. we’ll set you up (*he pours the priest a drink. It’s 10am*). There you go. Get your hands on it. Take it while it’s hot. Take it while it’s hot! I’m going to pour until it’s on the trey…There ya go.”

Vaughn continues on a 2-minute rant. He uses hilarious stories, analogies, metaphors, and descriptive language. He speaks rapid fire. He has presence and power. He’s funny, and remarkably self-aware.

It’s the perfect depiction of what we think social skills and charisma look like: never running out of things to say, being insightful and thoughtful, yet light and playful. The ability to use our words to make people laugh, cry, and think, all in a few brief moments of interaction.

I was thinking about this scene over the weekend because of a poll my sister, Jill put on Instagram. She asked whether or not we can improve our charisma. A surprising number of people said, “No, we cannot.” 

You have what you’re dealt. Game over. 

I think that’s because our idea of charisma is so discombobulated. We think charisma should look like Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers. This high expectation leaves us with either little to say (and feeling embarrassed and insecure about it) or too much to say because we’re afraid we’ll go unnoticed or unappreciated, so we overcompensate. 

What often goes unnoticed in that Wedding Crashers scene is that Vaughn feels more affection and warmth towards the priest (who didn’t say one word) than vice versa.

The scene ends with a content Vince Vaughn, offering up his class for a toast. With the clink of whiskey glasses, and smile on his face, he looks at the priest and says, “I’m diggin’ talking with ya. You’re a really enlightened cat, and I like that about ya. I think you’re a special, special man.”

He gets up, and the priest offers his hand for a shake. Vaughn tells him, “Bring it in for the real thing. I love you. You’re a sweet man.” And kisses the priest right on the mouth.

This is a huge failure in our perception of charisma and leadership. Charisma isn’t being the center of attention. It isn’t being funny, or loud, or boastful. It has nothing to do with whether you’re introverted or extroverted, or whether you can tell killer jokes or stories.

Author Olivia Fox Cabane says, “being charismatic means making others feel comfortable, at ease, and good about themselves when they are around us.” 

Research from MIT Labs shows “What impacts people isn’t the words or content used. Rather, they remember how it felt to be speaking with you.”

Or as the more eloquent and extraordinary Maya Angelou put it, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You see, being charismatic is less about becoming the ringmaster of the circus, and more about allowing others to be the star of the show. 

Becoming Charismatic

We’ve now established two facts about charisma:

  1. Charisma can be improved by introverts and extraverts alike. 
  2. Charisma is not about becoming seen by others, but by making others feel seen. In a world of “Look at me!” the power lies with the people who are secure enough to say “I see you.” That’s what charisma is all about. If we make others feel valued and appreciated when we are with them, they will perceive us as likable and charismatic.

But how? Here are some of my favorite tools:

1. Be Interested, To Be Interesting

Paradoxically, the more interested we become in others, the more interesting we ourselves become. It’s our ability to shine the spotlight on other people without fearing that our own light will burn out that makes us charismatic.

The first principe in Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People is “Become genuinely interested in other people.” The key word is genuinely. We cannot fake this.

People have a sixth sense for inauthenticity. If you’re pretending to be interested in their list of Top 5 Rappers (Dead or Alive), they’ll sense that.

Author Mark Manson says, “it’s your responsibility to find something great in everyone you meet. It’s not their responsibility to show you. Become curious. Stop being judgmental.”

I love that. I have always believed that every person has something interesting to share, and it is my job to find it. We can do this mainly by asking thoughtful questions in which we actually care about hearing an answer to.

I’m personally interested in travel, so I always ask people about their hometown or places the’ve been. I ask them about the best places to eat or top two “must-sees.” I actually care about the answers they share, and take note of their answers.

2. The Most Charismatic Thing You Can Do: Shut Up

“Embedded in the notion of charisma is empathy, I don’t see how you can be an effective leader without this ability” – Angel Martinez, chairman, Deckers Outdoors

Listening is an absolute requirement for charisma. It is hands-down the most anti-climatic, boring advice in the world. I have been trying for years to say it in sexy ways (like here, herehere, here, and here). No matter what I do, it’s still not sexy, yet it’s still essential to connecting with others. 

And just like the first tool above, you can’t fake listening.

If you and I are having a conversation but I’m thinking about swimming in a pool filled entirely of movie theater popcorn, you’re going to pick up on that on some level. Even if I use all the right words and hold rock-solid eye contact, you’ll still feel as if I’m not totally with you. 

Presence is a skill – a tough one at that. “Not only are we wired for novelty, distraction, sights, smells, or sounds, but marketing and distraction is at an all-time high.” says Cabane in the Charisma Myth. 

Our attention has become the most valuable resource we can give somebody.

This is the area where most people go from likable to loathsome. Tell me if anybody has done the following to you:

  • Interrupted you
  • Completely ignored what you just said (you can tell they were just waiting on their turn to speak)
  • Forgot your name… twice.

How’d it make you feel? 

I have a friend, whom I love, but he always ends up pushing others away. At first, he’s extremely charismatic. It speaks well, has a great sense of humor, and isn’t shy to strike up a conversation. Then over the course of an hour, or a cocktail, or god forbid both, he ruins any potential relationship that could’ve been formed. 

It’s because he needs others to listen to him. He has a strong belief that he is smarter and more interesting than anybody else he meets, so you speaks over them, ignore what they say, and cuts them off mid-sentence. 

Communicating charismatically has nothing to do with what we say, and everything to do with what we hear. Forgetting people’s names, cutting people off mid-sentence, and reflecting on popcorn-pools until it’s our turn to talk have become so common that it makes us feel as if nobody is listening to us. So we compensate by yelling loader or retaliate but checking out of anything that they’re sharing. 

3. Connect With Commonalities 

Opposites may attract, but commonalities connect. Charismatic people have a knack for making us feel like they’re the same person. “Wait, you use to live in Salt Lake City? So did I! Amazing. It’s like we’re twins.”

“OMG, you think pickles are repulsive? Me too!”

These things may seem insignificant, but collectively they’re huge. When we find small overlaps with other’s interests and experiences, we feel like we really are one in the same, and therefore feel more positively towards one another. And remember, charisma is all about how somebody feels towards you. If you and I feel like we are the same person, we’ll naturally be drawn to one another. I couldn’t possibly hate somebody who is so similar to me, right?

Do I think we are meant to like everyone? No. Do I think everyone will like us? No. But I truly believe we can connect with anybody given the right toolkit. I believe that we all can become  at least a little more charismatic.

Maybe you can’t be interested in anybody but yourself. Maybe you can’t help yourself from interrupting constantly, never listen, get on your phone every 30-seconds, and forget names. If this is you, then yes, you’re probably screwed. But a vast majority of people, even if we don’t become the hilarious, extroverted Vince Vaughn, can at least improve our charisma slightly.


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