Most charismatic people weren’t born with the ability to command a room or win over total strangers. They learned how to be charismatic over time -- which is good news, because it means that with the right techniques, even the most shy, awkward people can become highly charismatic.
Here’s the rub: It’s extremely easy for these charisma-boosting techniques to backfire. Like most things, they need to be exercised in moderation. When overused, the five strategies below can have the opposite effect than you intended -- making you come across as fake instead of engaging and authentic.
1) Trying (Too Hard) to Find Common Ground
Establishing commonality with someone else -- whether they’re a prospect, a customer, or a random acquaintance -- can be a great way to break the ice and make the other person feel at ease.
But if you try too hard to find common ground, the conversation will feel forced and awkward. This recently happened to me at a networking event, after I walked up to a stranger and introduced myself.
Me: What did you think of the keynote speaker? I loved her story about going to college in Alaska.
Him: Oh, I was actually wondering why they picked her -- she was funny, but she didn’t share any practical advice.
Me: I see your point. I like actionable tips as well. Have you read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff?
Him: Nah, I’m not a big reader.
The conversation went on like this until he politely excused himself. If I had a do-over? I’d focus on simply getting to know him, rather than chasing a common interest or shared opinion we clearly didn’t have.
2) Saying Their Name Over and Over … and Over
If you’re trying to show warmth and respect, insert the person’s name into your conversation. You can immediately see why this technique works by comparing the following two sentences:
“That’s a good idea.”
“Miranda, that’s a good idea.”
However, inserting someone’s name into every other sentence will have the exact opposite effect. Instead of boosting your likeability, you’ll sound patronizing.
“Miranda, that’s a good idea. Reconvening in a week will give me a chance to sort through this data. And Miranda, shoot me an email if you have any questions in the meantime … Alright, I’ll talk to you soon, Miranda!”
Yikes. So, how do you know when you’re going overboard with the name-calling? Every time you use someone’s name, let at one to two minutes pass before you use it again.
3) Mirroring the Other Person’s Body Language
Research shows that copying the other person’s gestures, posture, and facial expressions makes them like you more. Simultaneously, it makes you more empathetic -- and since people appreciate feeling understood, this will ingratiate you to them even further.
Yet that doesn’t mean you should start playing Simon Says with everyone you meet. Mirroring others only works when it’s subtle; if you obviously mimic someone, you’ll either annoy them, creep them out, or both.
So, what’s the difference between subtle and obvious imitation?
First, you should wait a couple seconds before moving to the same pose. Let’s say your prospect leans forward -- wait a beat or two, then do the same. Second, don’t copy unusual or idiosyncratic body language. To give you an idea, if your boss always scrunches his nose while he thinks, scrunching your own nose right after he does will seem like you’re making fun of him.
4) Talking With Your Hands
Hand gestures can be incredibly powerful: Not only do they help you capture and maintain your audience’s attention, they can also make you seem smarter.
But you’ll only reap those benefits if your hand gestures match up to your words -- and that’s surprisingly tricky to pull off.
That’s why it’s crucial to be aware of how your movements are perceived. For example, showing your palms at a 45-degree angle communicates honesty, whereas putting your palms up at a 90-degree angle indicates insecurity. If you’re telling a prospect that you don’t have any flexibility on the price, simply making your hands too flat could mean the difference between seeming credible or not. Along similar lines, clenching your hands can show that you’re strongly committed, “we will overcome” style. Yet if you make a fist while disagreeing with someone, you’ll make them feel threatened and suspicious. So, tread lightly.
5) Putting On a Show
Forcing yourself to be friendly and warm when you don’t actually feel friendly or warm is the most likely charisma-boosting technique to backfire of all. Researchers have found that, on a subconscious level, people can tell when someone is faking it -- and their brains react like they’ve been threatened.
So what can you do when you need to be charming, but you feel anything but? Olivia Fox Cabane, who teaches executives to be more charismatic, has an unusual solution: Visualizations.
Let’s say you’re trying to win back a former customer. You’ll want to sound relaxed, patient, and understanding, so right before you call, picture yourself sitting on the beach or walking through the woods. If you’re about to give a speech and need to exude energy and confidence, visualize yourself going white-water rafting, ziplining through the rainforest, or doing some other high-energy activity. Since the visualization will help your mental state to match up with your behavior, you won’t seem inauthentic.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to be more charismatic -- in fact, if you’re successful in dialing up the charisma, you’ll be much better at your job. However, if your charm offensive is too aggressive, it’ll have the opposite effect. Use these five techniques sparingly, or you’ll risk turning off everyone you meet.
Originally published May 24, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated October 29 2019