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The Charisma Myth:

How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism

Olivia Fox Cabane

Charisma, posits Olivia, isn’t simply a genetic gift, bestowed upon the likes of Boris Johnson and Bill Clinton. “For most people,” as she puts it, “it’s learnt.” Such lessons don’t come cheap, however. A standard year-long contract with Olivia’s New York-based practice (in reality, it’s just her) is priced at a suitably charismatic $150,000 (roughly £95,000). As a result, the majority of her clients are either Fortune 500 CEOs, or the executives who fill the ranks directly below them.

Being told by the boss that you need charisma counselling isn’t likely to make for a good day at the office, of course (indeed, it was hard not to suspect an ulterior motive on the part of my editor when she ordered me to “take a charisma lesson, then tell us about it”). But Olivia — who speaks a great deal faster than her own book recommends — insists that while her clients might feel uncomfortable throughout the process, the results are invaluable. “Just yesterday,” she confides, “I had to tell a client that he was being a complete smartass and that no one was going to like him. I’m brutal like that. I’ll tell someone what no one else has the guts to say.”

Now, charisma comes in many flavours — something Olivia is keen to point out. While one situation might require likeable charisma, another might be more suited to a far colder projection of uncompromising brilliance (see the legendary presentations of Steve Jobs). The trick is to be able to perform each type on cue, as a kind of muscle memory, thus ensuring that you are always in control of your immediate environment.

To help her clients achieve this, Olivia offers 24-hour open access to her charisma resources, including “shadow days” (where she follows them around, standing in the background, taking notes), emergency pre-meeting pep talks, and — most importantly — post-performance analysis. The latter includes studying video replays of her client’s Most Cringe Inducing Moments.

“Look, to be completely honest with you, charisma is a bait, a hook, a selling point,” Olivia tells me, adopting a tone of unexpected candour (this is one of her so-called “high warmth” tools).

How exactly Olivia learnt these skills is something of a mystery, however, especially given that she claims to have once been a socially inept nerd herself.

Raised in Paris to a French father and American mother (a chemistry professor and teacher respectively), she has three masters degrees in international business and law, but zero academic background in psychology. And yet when she moved to the US permanently in 2003, she was so taken with the rapidly advancing field of behavioural science, she immersed herself in it, which somehow led to her offering free charisma courses to the ultra-IQ students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They were a big hit, and in turn led to similar gigs at Harvard, Yale, and the United Nations. Astonishingly, Olivia was still in her twenties at this point.

That’s when she set about building her New York practice.

Olivia is now all of 33 years old, and her clients include the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche and the global bank Citigroup. She refuses to take political clients, however, claiming that she’s not comfortable with how her “frighteningly powerful” tools might be used. “I recently had a South American presidential candidate ask me for help,” she confides, “and I said no.” When it comes to celebrity CEOs, meanwhile, Olivia doesn’t like to name-drop — although, judging by the descriptions in her book, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Facebook’s once catastrophically awkward founder Mark Zuckerberg turned out to be one of her many wealthy pupils.

“I work under some pretty severe NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] on the corporate side,” is all she’ll say, pointing out that much of her other work is pro bono, for charities. So, how does one “learn” charisma?

For Olivia, it mostly comes down to mental conditioning. “Whatever’s in your head will come out in your body language,” she explains, adding that body language is so important that behavioural scientists at MIT are now able to predict the outcome of sales pitches with a high degree of accuracy simply by watching from afar, with no audio.

Those who lean forward a lot (see sidebar), nod too much, fail to make deep (and warm) eye contact, hunch up their shoulders, and — yes — give “subservient handshakes” are doomed to failure.

Luckily, the way to avoid such tragic loserdom is fairly straightforward, according to Olivia at least, and it’s all thanks to the human brain’s inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. This cognitive defect can be used to dupe oneself into a sense of confidence and wellbeing, but conversely, it is also the reason why the human imagination is able to provoke the fight-or-flight response — ie, when our bodies prepare to flee from a mortal danger, when in fact we’re just nervous about, say, hosting a party. “It’s a question of what cocktail of drugs do you feed your brain,” Olivia explains. “And how you flip that switch?”

Some of what she teaches is based on sports psychology.

Take the case of Britain’s Olympic hero Mo Farah, for example. Every time he wins, he performs the now world-famous “Mobot”. But this probably isn’t simply an act of innocent celebration, says Olivia. Far from it: athletes have been known to create signature victory moves, because they’re easily visualised — and one proven way to feed your brain the mood-enhancing chemical dopamine before an important event is to visualise a successful outcome. Or rather, remember how you felt after a previous victory.

But of course the same happens in reverse. If you make a mistake halfway through a presentation, your brain might call up memories of previous errors, and all of a sudden your body has gone into fight-or-flight, which shuts down every organ not directly responsible for running away at maximum speed. Alas, the parts of the body that go into standby mode in such panic situations include the brain, making it all the harder to recover while halfway through a task that requires thinking rather than physical retreat. Olivia claims that the secret to a charismatic comeback is to know instantly how to “forgive yourself” for the error, rather than standing there, burning up with shame. As for other charisma-killers, Olivia points to one of the most common being the widely studied Impostor Syndrome: the fear that you are completely out of your depth in a given situation. This, she says, is suffered by nearly all human beings at some point in their careers. And the worst possible response is to tell lies. “As a species, we’re just not good at it,” she states. “It puts a huge cognitive load on the brain. And it’s bad business.”

It’s at this point I ask her for a charisma-rating of my performance as an interviewer and quickly begin to regret it. She wasn’t kidding about her commitment to honesty. “With your face, you could pull off the sweet and innocent thing very easily,” she advises. “But your eyes narrow when you concentrate, they lose their warmth. And there’s no presence. Also, the way you’re sitting, you’re giving me a lot of back.”

Her advice? “Look at at your interview subject with compassion and empathy. Look at them as a peer. Use vulnerability.”

With that, it’s time to leave, and she moves on to a live analysis of my facial expressions, body positioning, and handshake as we discuss travel logistics. “Embrace the awkwardness,” Olivia instructs, more than once.

It’s mortifying, being called out in such a way, and yet also strangely thrilling — as if Olivia is my own personal Morpheus from The Matrix, and together we are deconstructing reality to better exploit it for our own gain.

“I should really hire you,” is one of the last things I blurt out, while trying desperately to exude presence, before finally reaching the door. Olivia smiles with all the warmth and vulnerability I had so clearly lacked during our session. “You couldn’t afford it,” she says.

5 steps to charisma

1 Stand like a “big gorilla”. Take up as much space in the room as possible, literally and figuratively. Wide stance. Arms loose. Puff out your chest if necessary.

2 Don’t be a bobble head. Too much nodding indicates low status and confidence; that you want to “please or appease” the person that you’re with. It’s a charisma-killer.

3 Stare like a lover. Make lots of eye contact — but exude warmth, too.

4 When closing a deal, lean back in your chair. This suggests high confidence. We instinctively lean forward when trying to sell something. Others will pick up on the insecurity.

5 Take a moment to focus on the sensations in your toes. This will “bring you into the present moment”, help you to concentrate, and (hopefully) make you relax and smile.

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