It’s one of humankind’s most elusive personality traits, and many people think we’re either born with or without it. But is it possible to become a more charismatic person? One writer takes a charisma masterclass to find out.
It’s 10am on a frosty winter morning in London. I’m blowing out my cheeks, flapping my arms around like a confused starfish and hopping up and down in a room above Bond Street. The idea is to take up as much space as possible as I gesticulate wildly and bound from corner to corner of the snug office.
I’m here – looking sillier by the second – in search of one of humankind’s most elusive personality traits: a mysterious, influential charm that people seem to be either born with or without.
When you think about people that ooze charisma, you’ll probably visualise enigmatic, smooth-talking world leaders, entrepreneurs and celebrities like Barack Obama, Jacinda Ardern, George Clooney or Adele.
Psychologist Richard Reid is one of the professionals who believes the subtle art of charisma can be mastered by anyone who’s patient and willing to put in some hard work; so much so that he leads a ‘Charisma Masterclass’ at his London clinic.
Purported to be the UK’s first, the class aims to teach people charismatic behaviours they can use in their personal and professional lives and Reid has schooled everyone including CEOs, entrepreneurs, celebrities and royalty on body language, tone of voice, approachability, messaging, self-belief and personal empowerment.
I’m here at a one-to-one session with Reid to try to incorporate a bit of charisma into my own life.
“Truly charismatic people are able to show off the best version of themselves while bringing out the best in others around them at the same time,” Reid tells me as I sit down for our session. “Think of yourself as your own personal brand,” says Reid, who explains that charisma is as much about how you make other people feel as it is about your own behaviour.
This means charisma isn’t always about being the most exuberant person in the room like we might traditionally think. “People warm to authenticity and can see easily through insincerity,” says Reid.
Rather than putting on a fake persona at parties, charismatic people are genuine. Introverts can also be quietly charismatic.
Reid explains by citing an episode of The Graham Norton Show with Will Smith as a guest. “We think of Will Smith as being very charismatic, but in this episode, he is overly chatty and starts to dominate the conversation. The other guests start to shy away from speaking,” says Reid. “This shows that charisma isn’t always about being the loudest person in the room. It’s about checking in on how other people are feeling.”
But, this doesn’t mean bending over backwards to fulfil other people’s needs. “We like to be around people who are confident in their opinions and make us feel passionate about the subjects they love,” explains Reid. So expressing yourself passionately is also a key aspect of being charismatic.
“Charisma and self-belief go hand-in-hand,” says Reid. “When you believe you can do something, your passion shines through and others will put their faith in you, too.” Often, it’s our own lack of self-confidence that gets in the way of showing off our best selves in public situations. So, a huge part of developing charisma is about overcoming the self-inflicted anxieties that hold us back.
With this in mind, Reid begins the masterclass like a traditional therapy session asking me to delve into what I feel prevents me from oozing that magnetic charm when I walk into a room.
I tell Reid I’m an overthinker. I spend my time at parties with thoughts of everything that could go wrong and my past social faux pas whirling around in my head. This means I tend to shy away from the spotlight, escaping to the nearest bar or a shadowy corner of the room where I can observe all the social action from the sidelines.
This is a common affliction, according to Reid. “Many of us think so much about our own behaviour that we forget about the impact we’re having on other people,” he explains. “It means people can come away with a false impression of us.”
Pin-pointing, exploring and changing the things that give us social anxiety can take time. “A lot of my time with people is spent analysing what can be holding them back in social situations,” says Reid. “It can be a long process.”
Once I’ve put my finger on some of the mindsets I struggle with, Reid challenges me to take up space in the room and see what it feels like. After flailing about, I get more comfortable with opening up and being authentic in front of a stranger.
Reid then teaches me some quick techniques to help calm my nerves and boost my confidence. “These are things you have to practise bit by bit,” says Reid. “Start small and begin incorporating them into real life situations.”
1. Think positively. If you’re nervous before entering a busy event, Reid suggests taking a few moments to think positive thoughts and put yourself in the best frame of mind. If you do this while pinching one of your fingers, Reid says, you’ll come to associate the action with the positive thought, so much so that simply pinching that finger when you feel stressed or anxious will help calm you down.
2. Breathe. Simple breathing exercises are a quick way to calm nerves. Reid recommends the 4-4-6 technique – breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds and breathing out for six seconds.
3. Position. Instead of gravitating to the corner of the room or the bar in social situations, Reid recommends situating yourself in the centre of the room. If this feels uncomfortable, he suggests doing this over time in increasingly large gatherings.
4. Choose words carefully. Charismatic people often talk in shorter, sharper sentences. They avoid using filler words such as ‘er’ or ‘like’ and pause after important points. Politicians such as Barack Obama are adept at this, explains Reid.
5. Leave a lasting impression. Before starting a conversation, Reid suggests thinking about three reflections you want to leave people with.
6. Gesticulate. Charismatic people usually use their hands when they speak. This emphasises their passion for a subject and opens up their body language, making them seem more approachable.
7. Write it out. Try journalling out your thoughts and feelings after social interactions to study where you felt you shone and what you could change next time. “Charisma is all about trial and error,” explains Reid. “If you try something that doesn’t work, don’t worry about it. Keep trying different things and developing your skills in different situations.”
I take my new lessons away and start putting them into action. With Christmas parties cancelled, I start talking (full of passion and pauses) to my local newsagent, who I start to get to know. I also start doing breathing exercises before my work Zoom meetings to make me feel calmer when it’s my turn to speak.
After a couple of weeks, I might not have the gravitas and easy humour of Barack Obama, but I do feel more comfortable with being myself in front of people and feel like I’m showing off my best side without having to resort to my starfish moves.