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Learning Charisma

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Chris Kowal Headshot

Learning Charisma

Posted: Updated:

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Amy Cuddy's brilliant TEDTalk on how "Body Language Shapes Who We Are" -- closing in on 3 million views -- introduces the evidence-based concept of "fake it till you become it."

Cuddy's talk resonates with me because I spend my days researching the communication of emotions. Centered deeply within her work is the concept of emotion, particularly the emotion of power and how we communicate it to ourselves and to others.

Emotions are drivers for human and animal motivation. In the 19th century, Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, suggesting that the communication of emotions is extremely important to survival.

Today, advances in neurochemistry and neuroimaging have allowed social scientists to make great strides in understanding how emotions work, research that may help advance the understanding of disorders such as autism.

Cuddy talks about how nonverbal behaviors affect our dealings with others. Studies have shown how touch, for example, can create behaviors: A librarian accidently touches you and, as a result, you're more likely to return the borrowed book on time. We know that emotions are contagious. For instance, you visit a depressed friend, and within minutes, you, too, are feeling depressed.

An important topic exhibited and alluded to, but not necessarily stated, is that along with exuding power in evaluative situations you also need to make an emotional connection. Likeable doctors are less likely to be sued but share a systematic power over their patients with unlikeable ones, the difference being the emotional connection the likeable doctors achieve.

For me, the study of emotional connections has led to something of an obsession with charisma as a learned skill set. And while Cuddy talks about learning the body language of power to make yourself more powerful, I would suggest that Cuddy herself has done a terrific job of learning to exude charisma.

When Max Weber first described charisma in the early 1920s, he thought of it as a gift from god, a magical power that was bestowed to certain leaders. Now we understand charisma to be a process that creates a deep emotional connection through verbal and nonverbal communication. It is composed of specific emotional communication skills -- how we touch, the words we use (I vs. we), our facial display, empathy, vision, vulnerability and inspiration. Charisma is an adaptation to one's environment; you are not born with it. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Adolf Hitler and John F. Kennedy (among others we consider naturally charismatic) all shared traumatic teenage experiences that taught them the importance of tuning in to the emotional communication of others to survive and flourish in their environments.

I think the strongest point Cuddy made in her talk wasn't about the research and discoveries made in the science, but her own inspiring story. The video becomes amazingly emotional as she strategically and masterfully makes herself vulnerable to the audience.

Cuddy spends the first 16 minutes talking about power -- how to feel more powerful, to be more powerful, to communicate the emotion of power. Then, choking back tears, she shares her personal story of how she faked it until she became it, and how she saw this same potential in one of her students.

Her vulnerability displayed a key component to charisma. She connected with her audience in a strong way prior to her personal testimony; she used great reason, humor, and examples. The talk, however, became something much more powerful when she majestically made her point by sharing such an inspiring and potent story. Her audience moves from listening to an expert to caring about this person. It happens when her face suddenly reveals an emotional memory. As a result, the audience is motivated to cheer her on, breaking out in spontaneous applause.

Cuddy makes this emotional connection with herself real for all who are willing to feel. It is a shining example of charisma.

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