Article Category: Speechwriting

What is Charisma?
Can it be Learned?

When you think about charisma, who do you think about? Bill Clinton? Martin Luther King Jr.? Steve Jobs?

What about you? Do you have charisma?

Many speakers and non-speakers hold the belief that charisma is an innate gift — either you are born with it, or you aren’t.

But can you learn charisma? Recent research suggests that you can!

Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs)

Researchers at the University of Lausanne have identified 12 tactics demonstrated frequently by charismatic leaders. These charismatic leadership tactics (CLTs) include 9 verbal and 3 non-verbal tactics.

Verbal Tactics

  1. Demonstrate moral convictions.
    Link your messages with underlying moral principles and state your intention to “do the right thing.”
  2. Reflect the sentiment of the group.
    Listen to the concerns of your audience, and emphasize shared history, struggles, or desires.
  3. Set high expectations.
    Set daring goals for both yourself and your audience.
  4. Communicate confidence.
    Assure your audience that the high goals can be achieved.
  5. Tell stories and anecdotes.
    Engage your listeners and wrap lessons in real-life stories.
  6. Use metaphors, similes, and analogies.
    Help your audience understand your messages in terms of concepts or experiences which they already know.
  7. Employ contrast.
    Define yourself (and your ideas) clearly by emphasizing what you (and your ideas) are not.
  8. Organize content into triads (three part lists).
    Leverage the magical rule of three to make your messages easier to remember.
  9. Ask rhetorical questions.
    Engage your audience with questions that prompt them to get involved cognitively.
Want to learn more?
We’ve written about many of these behaviours before. For example, check our articles on the following topics: storytelling, metaphors, contrastrule of three, rhetorical questionsgestures, facial expressionspauses, or vocal variety.

Non-Verbal Tactics

  1. Gesture naturally.
    Punctuate your words with appropriate symbolic gestures.
  2. Speak through facial expressions.
    Express the emotion of your words consistently with your eyes and face.
  3. Animate your voice.
    Vary the volume, tone, pacing, and pauses to emphasize your message.

Research Studies

In the first study, 34 managers were rated on their charisma and how much they behave like a leader. Half of the managers were then trained in the use of charismatic leadership tactics (CLTs), while the other half were a control group. Three months after the training, the 34 managers were again rated. Managers who received the CLT training experienced significant growth in their charisma ratings, relative to the control group.

In the second study, a group of 41 MBA course students delivered speeches before and after CLT training. The before and after speeches were then evaluated. Speakers who demonstrated more CLTs received higher ratings on trust, competence, influence, and leadership.

This is compelling research, but keep in mind that it’s not these tactics which define one as a charismatic leader. There is no recipe for charisma. Having said that, all twelve tactics mentioned above will make you a more effective and persuasive speaker, if incorporated with moderation.

Further Reading

Here’s the original research paper on which this article is based:

If you don’t want to wade through the academic research, an easier-to-read overview written by the authors is also available. Harvard Business Review requires you to register to read the whole article, but it is free to do so.

What do you think?

Can charisma be learned? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. Great post on an important issue Andrew – thanks. It is liberating for people to know they can improve, and that lack of charisma is not something you’re stuck with. What struck me was how this research (and the other attempts to model charisma) all support what Aristotle tells us about ethos, pathos, and logos being the keys to communication. More here if you’re interested:

  2. Wonderful A.D.. Yes, that’s how I refer you to my friends and TMs here in Bangalore. Thanks for putting it the other way. 🙂

  3. Actual charisma is not a strategy, not a set of mechanical skills. It is a result of presence, of openness to allow your soul to be expressed, of being able to receive the flow of attention from otherswithout pretension or protecting yourself. Authenticity creates a magnetic pull when you are so real with listeners and so receptive to others that you draw them to you. Charisma is a feeling, a felt-sense of love and openness to others that causes them to want to be with you. It is emotional, it leaves an impression on others. If I am correct about charisma, then there is also a deeper work to do to develop charisma. Along with the skills listed in this post, you must also work to be more authentic, be more emotional, be more open and be more present with listeners.

  4. ottoh, blossom says:

    great, great research. it’s fantastic. i think my students need to see this.

  5. Taylor says:

    Absolutely! Great charismatic presenters are made, not born.

    Just like anything, it takes time, patience and hard work…just like learning a foreign language.

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