How To Be Charismatic

Marilyn Monroe flaunted it, Oprah oozes it, but can even the shyest woman attain it? Here, Olivia Richardson finds how even the most timid person can learn to be charismatic.

She’s over there, slinked between the Ryan Gosling look-alike, the mayor and 10-odd other intriguing people at the party. Everyone’s hanging on to her every word like she’s the female Messiah. Meanwhile, you’re slumped against the cleaning cupboard, less dazzling than a sock hanger. What you need is a little charisma – some allure and sparkle.

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“It will make you more influential, more persuasive and more inspiring,” says Olivia Fox Cabane*, charisma coach to executives from Google, Deloitte and Citigroup. “People will like you, trust you, and want to be led by you.”

Thankfully, you don’t have to be born with charisma – you can learn it. “In controlled experiments, researchers were able to raise and lower people’s levels of charisma as if they were turning a dial, just by asking them to adopt specific behaviours,” says Fox Cabane.

A classic example of this flick-of-a-switch charisma was often performed by Marilyn Monroe, who, in 1955, took a journalist with her on the New York subway to show how she could flick between girl-next-door Norma Jean Baker (her birth name) to va-va-voom, shake the room Monroe – through confidence and body language alone. No-one noticed her while in “Baker mode”, on the subway. But as they stepped onto the footpath she teased, “Do you want to see her?” before fluffing her hair and striking a Marilyn-esque pose. Bam! Onlookers instantly recognised her and flocked over to admire the “magic” that she seemed to radiate.

So, how to do the same?

1. Make the right entrance

Just before entering an event, think of your best achievement to instantly flood your system with confidence-boosting endorphins, advises Fox Cabane. “[Then] walk into the room as tall as you can and look out with a smile, as if you’re looking for someone – but also give people eye contact as you pass,” says events coordinator Elisa Limburg ( “People immediately notice that and will check you out, regardless of how tall you stand.”

Also, wear a piece that draws attention and inspires people to approach you, like a gorgeous bag or earrings.

2. Be present

Charismatic people are 100 per cent attentive to the situation and person they are talking to. “When you’re not fully present in an interaction, there’s a good chance your eyes will glaze over, or that your facial reactions will be delayed. Since people can read expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds, the person you’re speaking to will likely notice even the tiniest delays in your reactions,” states Fox Cabane.

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A 2010 Harvard University study discovered that people spend 47 per cent of their waking time thinking about something other than the task at hand, conversations included. “If you find yourself zoning out, try focusing on your toes, which will force your mind to sweep through your body,” advises Fox Cabane.

This will bring you back to the moment.

3. Exude warmth

Stare like a lover (deep, but warm eye contact); speak in a slow, confident, resonant and warm voice (think of a preacher); and think of three things you like about the person you’re talking to, suggests Fox Cabane. For phone charisma, answer in a business-like way until you hear who’s calling, then make them feel special by pouring enthusiasm and warmth into your voice.

4. Pretend you’re the host of the party

In your mind only, of course! Doing this will boost your confidence because it makes the event “yours”, explains Fox Cabane.

5. Position yourself wisely

Sitting or standing face to face can make us feel like we’re being assessed or “attacked”. For a warmer position, “Sit either next to, or at a 90-degree angle from, them. These are the positions in which we feel most comfortable,” says Fox Cabane.

Another trick is to stand around the food table. “When people eat, their endorphin levels rise, which puts them in a better mood,” she explains. This increases the likelihood that they’ll be receptive to new interactions.

6. Wait two seconds before answering

Everybody likes to feel valued and listened to. Instead of responding straightaway, wait – absorb – react– then answer. “This should take you at least two seconds. If you answer in less time, there’s a risk you’ll be answering too quickly, giving other people the impression you’ve not really listened to what they were saying,” says Fox Cabane.

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7. Make it all about them

Ironically, the longer you keep people talking about themselves, the more captivating they’ll find you. “What people will remember is not what was said – but how it felt to be talking to you,” adds Fox Cabane.

Keep people talking by asking up-beat and open-ended questions, and talk about things that make them tap into their memories, like, “What’s the story behind that vintage necklace?”

8. Breathe better

Shallow breathing activates the stress response. “It’s hard to feel calm, relaxed, and confident when you’re not getting enough oxygen and your body thinks it’s in fight or flight mode. Taking even just one deep, slow, full breath can instantly lower your stress level and increase your feeling of confidence,” says Fox Cabane. Fast breathing first-aid: inhale slowly for five counts, hold for two, then exhale for five.

9. Use damage control

Said something you wished you hadn’t? “In any awkward situation, try to use wit, simple charm or politeness to get out of it,” says Limburg. “If all else fails, say, ‘I was just trying to get attention.’ It usually gets a few laughs and breaks the ice.” This also works if you trip, or knock something over.

10. End on a good note

Don’t wait too long to end a conversation, or you’ll feel strained, uncomfortable or bored. Exit tastefully by waiting until they’ve finished a sentence and by saying something like: “You know, based on what you’ve just said, you really should meet this person/read this book/check out this website,” advises Fox Cabane.

As soon as you get their contact details, you have an opportunity to say, “Great! I’ll email you. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Or, if they’ve agreed to meet someone in the room, introduce them, then leave. “Since you’ve just given them something, they can’t help but have positive feelings for you.”