Mimicking Charisma?

First appeared in ‘The Age’ (Australia.)

A lot of people use a single word to define that feeling of warmth, charm, personal impact a person just ’has or hasn’t got’ – charisma.

Some believe that it’s something you’re either lucky enough to have or not. But as Arnold Palmer famously said when asked about his lucky shots from the bunkers, “It’s a funny thing, the more I practise the luckier I get.”

Practice makes perfect. Winston Churchill, like many leaders, was not a natural public speaker. In one of his first speeches to Parliament in 1904 he delivered it without notes and had to cut it short as he become totally lost.

After he sat down in embarrassment, he was quoted as saying that this would never happen again. After that he prepared relentlessly for every speech. For every minute of delivery he spent an hour preparing. It was not unusual for him to prepare for 30 hours on one speech.

Although a lot of research indicates how you say it has more immediate impact than what you say – what you say will be remembered for a great deal longer. So make sure you are clear about what your intention is. If it is to be helpful and honest, people will forgive many shortcomings in delivery, body language and tone.

On the whole, people are pretty good at picking up intentions. We generally know when someone is lying, or ’being economical with the truth’.

However it is good practice not to totally rely on your good intentions. You may have the best intention in the world but if the audience is not in tune with you they may not recognise this.

This could be due to all sorts of reasons – some history with you or something currently going on in the workplace that you know nothing about. If this is the case, the effect you have on your audience may not be the same as your intention and you will need to rethink.

Walking the walk

Studies show leaders appear more powerful by acting as they think leaders should act. The ’fake it till you make it’ process. The more you act like a strong, powerful person the easier it is for people to regard you as one and the easier it is for you to become one.

If you have someone in mind as a role model that makes this process even easier. Copy what they do when they enter a room or answer a question. Suddenly after a few weeks of acting authoritatively you realise you are not acting anymore. Within a few more weeks you will start adapting and developing your own style.

In terms of public speaking, there are a number of simple, straightforward tips that can make a huge difference. From the start you need to take control of the environment. This means controlling everything you can control. Both the physical aspects (lighting, numbers, seating arrangements, screen, handouts) and the non-physical aspects (introductions, questioning policy, number of slides, timing, your appearance, knowledge of the audience, your preparation, posture).

Expect the unexpected. Do not be distracted by ’Oh, it’ll be okay – it’s the same as last time”. Get them to show you, check and have back ups for everything. Also recognise that even when you have done everything you can, things will happen that you have not thought about. When that fire alarm goes off accidentally, or the police rush in chasing an armed robber, adapt and do not start thinking about who to blame. Well, not for the time being at least.

The vital part of this is non-physical. Make sure your introduction (if you are having one) is correct and more importantly is what you want. If you are making a speech in front of 500 people do not let yourself be introduced with: “Tonight we have someone making their first speech in front of a large audience so please be gentle on them.”

Tempting though it may seem to get some audience sympathy it just will not work. In a classic experiment two sets of students were given identical lectures and told that the first lecturer was new, and the second an expert. Guess which one received vastly better ratings?

There are some leaders who, I admit, do have that special ’something’. But I guess they have worked hard at developing other aspects of themselves and I really believe anyone can learn to lead.

The outside part is easy (well relatively). The hard part is inside – the intention and the vision. If these are solid then with hard work, the rest will follow.


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