‘I am not naturally magnetic’: can you learn how to be charismatic?

From politics to business, charisma is the 21st-century must-have. But what is it and can you really turn a shy type into a George Clooney?

It is a Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting in the hairdressers, having both my usuals: a short back and sides and a mild attack of awkwardness. Apart from the snip of scissors, a silence has descended. Its not the barbers fault; hes covered all the regular bases (my hair, my weekend plans, where Im going on holiday). Now the conversational onus is on me. Ive long used up my quota of Really? and the sanctuary of the hairdryer is some way off.

Charisma: it is not something I have ever been accused of having. But how much does a person need? This ethereal quality (or lack of it) has been credited both with the rise of Donald Trump and the fall of Ed Miliband. For better or worse, it is the reason Boris Johnson is foreign secretary and Tim Farron is still Who? When, in those distant summer months, Michael Gove announced he was running for the Conservative leadership, he brought it up in his first speech: Whatever charisma is, I dont have it. And it was true: his political career soon came to a grinding halt.

Can you learn charisma? The man sitting next to me in the hairdressers thinks so. His name is Danish Sheikh and he is a charisma coach. He has worked with executives from Yahoo and the BBC, training them in confidence acquisition and personal magnetism. Sheikh reckons he can turn your average anyone into a Clooney or a Bardot. And for two days I will be his student.

I sit in the hairdressers chair pondering possible small talk. It shouldnt be that hard: Im intelligent enough, I like sport and music, and keep up with current affairs. There are endless, countless ways to connect. What about you? I ask the barber, eventually. Going anywhere nice on holiday?

In the mirror, I see Sheikh wince.

At its most basic, according to Sheikh, charisma is an ability to connect with people through sheer force of personality. You cant put a price on a skill like that, he says, although he does: 150 an hour, to be precise. And plenty of people are paying. The Ministry of Defence, Bupa, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Sony have all hired coaches who specialise in the area. Olivia Fox Cabane, author of the 2013 bestseller The Charisma Myth, says business leaders are willing to pay more than $100,000 a year for her advice. The United Nations once invited her to lecture about improving leadership skills using behavioural science.

Why is this it factor so important right now? I ask Richard Reid, a British cognitive behavioural psychotherapist who, clearly a man not shy of his own charm, calls himself Mr Charisma. Reid specialises in a range of areas addiction, depression, crisis management but in 2009 developed one of the UKs first charisma courses. Since then, his clients have included Transport for London, the National Crime Agency and Google. These organisations dont want managers any more, he says. They want leaders. And leadership means emotional intelligence. To all intents and purposes, thats charisma. Those without this so-called emotional intelligence, or EQ, lead by instruction, Reid says. Those with it, lead by influence, which is more effective. They attract people to their vision through rapport, he explains. In business terms, if you look at the brightest companies today, staff believe in the ethos and culture of what they are doing. That doesnt happen by accident. It is an atmosphere created through charismatic leadership.

Increasingly, he says, his clients include young professionals, mid-earners and creatives. He recently coached one young man who wanted help before a best mans speech. Its a competitive world, Reid says. If you can learn how to connect with people, you find more opportunities come your way. Plus it makes everything, from job interviews to parties, more enjoyable.

It sounds too good to be true and, for me, that may be the issue. Can this stuff truly be taught?

Writer
Colin Drury: I feel I walk a line between awkwardness and arrogance. Photograph: Jay Brooks for the Guardian
I am not naturally magnetic. I feel I walk a line between awkwardness and arrogance. One, I suspect, is an affectation designed to disguise the other, but I am 33 and no longer sure which is which.

Being charming likable, even does not come easily, and I am sure there are opportunities and friendships I have missed out on as a result. For some time, I wrote a column in a local newspaper, which was popular enough; but when readers met me, I felt their disappointment. One old chap told me straight: the spark that was there in print didnt exist in person. I told him I knew. But how do you change whats inherent in you?

Dr Erik Matser is a neuropsychologist who has worked with Chelsea football club and the Dutch Olympic swimming team, and who specialises in talent optimisation. Only a minority of people are truly comfortable in their own skin, he tells me. For everyone else, some coaching whether or not you call that charisma coaching would help. Perhaps once there was a stigma attached, but no longer. Its right to want to be the best version of yourself, and that requires help. Human development is too complex to do on our own. More people are recognising that.

He suggests this should be taken even further. I think there is an argument for emotional intelligence empathy and interpersonal skills, in particular being taught in schools, he says. This is one way to both help people reach their full potential, and to create a better world.

Meanwhile, Sheikh, my coach, is self-taught. Originally from India, he was a nerdy teenager turned Yahoo product manager who, frustrated by his inability to make friends, spent a decade studying the psychology and neurology of social interaction. When he realised that, by his late 20s, he had transformed himself, he went full-time guru.

My own first impression is that I like him but, well, he doesnt seem very charismatic. But you like me, he counters. So were already in a positive relationship this is charisma. Checkmate.

His first impressions of me are more brutal. It is the morning after my haircut. Yesterday, he followed me everywhere, watching my interactions, and now he has written his observations on a whiteboard. It doesnt make easy reading. Yet it is only in recognising our weaknesses, I am told, that we can address them.

So here goes: I struggle with small talk, lack confidence entering a room, have closed body language and, because I feel too much eye contact is an invasion of personal space, I dont do it enough. Unless youre engaging me about certain trigger subjects (football, literature, the 19th-century history of Britains railways), I appear to lack enthusiasm.

But dont worry, Sheikh concludes, cheerfully, were going to fix all this.

Over 48 hours, I learn a lot, including how to stand like a gorilla (feet apart, arms wide: this subliminally says high status). But the overriding principle Sheikh imparts, the one that informs everything else, is that charismatic people project their own value while simultaneously making others feel valued. Their magnetism comes from combining authority and empathy.

Sheikhs sessions are based on the idea that we can develop, practise and perfect various subliminal techniques and interpersonal skills that will create this outward effect of importance and warmth. I think of the most charismatic people I know and wonder if thats simply what they have done; worked hard to perfect these skills. I think of Martin, a journalist 30 years my senior. The room doesnt stop when he enters, but he never looks out of place, anywhere. He carries himself with both gravitas and levity and, crucially, hes not the sort of person who changes his manner to fit in.

I ask Martin if hes aware of this: did he consciously work on it? I think I just listen more than most people, he shrugs. But thats not a studied thing. Its just because, if Im talking, I dont learn anything new.

I tell him about my charisma lessons, and he nods along, asking questions. What does he think, I ask after a while. Load of bollocks, he says. Fancy another pint?

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When it comes to acquiring empathy, Sheikh says listening actively and intently is key. Photograph: Jay Brooks for the Guardian

Until recently, charisma wasnt something I gave much thought to. If I ever considered it, it would be in the same way I considered a Cruyff turn: a nice skill to have, for sure, but not something I thought I needed. Without charisma, I have achieved the traditional fundamentals: partner, house, a job I enjoy well enough. When I first called Sheikh, it was out of pure journalistic intrigue. I wanted to know why a quality first identified by the ancient Greeks had become such a 21st-century must-have; I wanted to understand how something generally regarded as innate could possibly be taught.

But now, when I start to reflect on the situations where I wish Id had more magnetism a greater ability to connect the list seems pretty endless: making friends, making professional contacts; ultimately, making more of myself. With it, perhaps I would have got that job, or bonded better with that person. Perhaps I wouldnt be the guy who struggles with small talk at parties. Perhaps interacting with the world wouldnt often feel so unfeasibly difficult.

When it comes to acquiring empathy, one of those twin facets of charisma, Sheikh says listening actively and intently is key. Showing interest in people makes them feel good: they then associate that feeling with you. If youre even momentarily distracted, people pick up on this, because humans detect micro-expressions in about a 50th of a second, he explains. If you learn to stop your mind wandering to be entirely present the person youre with feels special. Reid has a lovely way of phrasing the same advice: It doesnt matter if youre backstage with the Rolling Stones, he declares. If youre talking to the guy cleaning up, he should be the only person with your attention.

Projecting your own value is more difficult to learn. No one likes the guy who has rattled through his achievements by the first canape, but, equally, no one remembers the person offering nothing. The solution is ambiguous. Dont boast, but dont underplay yourself; dont be po-faced but dont self-deprecate; ultimately, Sheikh says, dont blatantly sell yourself but, well, be aware you do need to sell yourself. So that clears that up.

We should remember, too, Sheikh says, that our immediate feelings towards someone are dominated by evolutionary instinct. Good posture and deepened voice signals strength, wide stance suggests authority, and an open body indicates trust. Essentially, the unspoken message youre going for is: genuine, dependable, useful in a sabre-toothed tiger attack.

Sheikh and I drill other basics. Entering a room (chin up, shoulders back), holding eye contact (Dont stare thats staring four seconds max, then break, he says), and hand gestures (sparingly): done right, all will establish your presence and value. The same goes with voice tone: dont speak too fast or too slow; vary your pace to keep your listeners attention.

It is classroom-style work, but not as you know it. I am lectured in the theory making notes as we go and then we run practice routines. For instance, small talk: Im told by Sheikh to keep things breezy, speak expressively and make questions open. He pretends to be first my hairdresser, then a commissioning editor, then a stranger at a party. Not once, I can confirm, do I ask him where hes going on holiday.

He takes me through a mindfulness exercise, teaching me to be in the moment with the person I am talking to. Sheikh shares his personal trick: if he finds his attention momentarily wandering, he takes off his glasses and cleans them. This action, he says, jolts him back into the present and nudges him to return his focus. When he tells me this, I admire its simplicity. Later, over a drink, while in full-flow with one of my better anecdotes, I notice him cleaning his glasses.

I should also be confident. But how? By employing some biological chemistry and remembering a past triumph. This fills your brain with oxytocin, a hormone that blasts away fear and anxiety. Do it before you enter a room, Sheikh tells me, and youre on a natural buzz, ready to conquer the world.

That night, I do exactly that before walking into a bar. Not as good as a quick livener, perhaps, but its early days. Im meeting Sheikh for the climax of the course our practical exam, if you will. Were here to make chitchat with strangers. We spark some conversations and they go OK. I am not convinced people in bars, English bars especially, really like that moment when a stranger starts speaking to them I swear I see terror in some eyes but in the haze of the night there is laughter and topics I could never have predicted. A physics graduate explains black holes, and a long-distance lorry driver reveals how this time tomorrow hell be in <a href=”https://www.visitscotland.com/info/towns-villages/arbroath-p241591″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Arbroath.

Beautiful town, I say, going too far with my flow of positive affirmation. Have you been, he asks, surprised. I pause and consider my options. No, I tell him after a moment. But one day, fingers crossed.

At intervals, Sheikh offers gentle feedback. Dont cross your arms; when speaking, make eye contact with everyone in the circle, that kind of thing. Dont go overboard on empathising with people, is another one. Im pretty sure hes referring to Arbroath.

Remembering all my objectives hands, eyes, vocal expressions, presence, active listening, projecting, oxytocin, serotonin is a monumental, sweat-inducing effort. Realising Im struggling, I tell a couple were speaking to about my charisma coaching. It starts a debate. Not having it, is the opinion of the guy. Being charismatic is just about being yourself no tricks.

This contradicts much of what Ive learned over the past two days, but I sort of agree. Fine-tuning social niceties is one thing, but methodically changing your entire behaviour to appeal to others strikes me as the exact opposite of gaining an it factor. Isnt an absence of authenticity even less appealing than an absence of magnetism? I think of this, and then of all the opportunities and friendships I worry Ive missed. Maybe my authentic self just never wanted them that badly.

I share this with Sheikh, who is ready with a contradiction. That guy who thinks charisma is just being yourself is, it turns out, a photographer, and we end up swapping numbers with a view to working together. Thats a connection built on rapport, Sheikh says, which is exactly what charisma is. This has worked for you.

Do I feel changed? Not as such. I know for a fact Im never again going to stand like a gorilla or enthuse about Scottish towns I couldnt find on a map. But perhaps charisma, at its core, is simpler than that anyway; its about understanding better who you are, and deploying the best version of yourself.

As we leave the pub, Sheikh and I shake hands and go our separate ways. Then he calls down the street to me: Hey, let me know how the next haircut goes? He gives a thumbs up. Hes deliberately giving me a last blast, I think, of his charisma. And I like him for it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/17/can-you-learn-how-to-be-charismatic-charisma-shy-business

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