12 tactics to become more charismatic and influential

What is it that makes leaders stand out – what makes people want to leave cushy corporate jobs for their startup ideas, vote for them, give them money for their wild ideas, in a word: follow them?

According to professor John Antonakis, a professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Lausanne, the answer is simple: they’re charismatic

He even developed a “charisma” model to predict who people will vote for:

And, he says, you can learn charisma.

Antonakis and his colleagues developed both a training to become more charismatic, and a test to see whether the training worked. ”We tested whether we could teach individuals to behave more charismatically, and whether changes in charisma affected leader outcomes.” And guess what:

Results from the studies indicated that the training had significant effects on ratings of leader charisma.”

Says Antonakis: “anyone trained in what we call ‘charismatic leadership tactics’ (CLTs) can become more influential, trustworthy, and “leaderlike” in the eyes of others. Here are the 12 tactics that Antonakis recommends for people wanting to become more charismatic.

The first 9 of them are verbal tactics.

Use (1) metaphors, similes, analogies

Metaphors, similes and analogies work so well because they make message easier to understand and connect to.

In a blog on the Harvard Business Review, Antonakis gives the example of Martin Luther King, who compared the civil rights situation of black Americans to ‘receiving a bad check’, which gets sent back because of ‘insufficient funds’. This message is immediately clear to anyone (or as we say in Dutch, it doesn’t need a drawing).

Tell (2) stories and anecdotes

This is what Barack Obama does often: he tells stories about his own life, to clarify his position on thorny issues. He used it to great effect in his instantly famous speech on race in the 2008 elections.

In fact, Obama might use this technique too often, according to recent critiques. In a scathing piece titled “We are gathered here today to hear more…about me”, Slate recently blasted Obama for talking too much about himself:

Obama likes to see events through the lens of his own life’s chronology. Thus we learn that Inouye was elected to the Senate when Obama was 2 years old. Now you could make this relevant by describing how Inouye worked to send federal dollars (you don’t have to call it “pork” at a funeral) to transform Hawaii’s roads and schools, for example, so that the Hawaii Obama grew up in had the kind of facilities people on the mainland had long taken for granted. But no, we simply learn that Inouye was Obama’s senator until he left the state to go to college—something apparently more momentous than anything Inouye did during his decades in office.

So, don’t go overboard when using this.

(3) Use contrasts

Contrast is effective because it combines both reason and passion, says Antonakis. He gives the example of a manager that he trained in the use of these techniques: a senior VP, speaking to a direct report managing a stagnant team: “It seems to me that you’re playing too much defense when you need to be playing more offense.” But the most famous use of contrast is probably John F. Kennedy’s ”don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

According to Antonakis’ research, contrasts are highly effective, but they “aren’t used often enough”.

So when you’re preparing that important presentation, try to think about how to bring more contrast into it.

(4) Ask rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions might seem tired, but don’t be deterred: they work. Here’s an example Antonakis gives of a rhetorical question used by an IT executive who needed to push back at the unrealistic goals being set for him: “How can you expect me to change an engine in a plane midflight?”

(5) Use three-part lists

We actually had a blog about three part lists here recently, in which Michael Van Damme explained that he found Malcolm Gladwells use of three part lists very effective, while at the same time feeling that Gladwell wasn’t especially convincing scientifically. The managers in the audience, he noted, didn’t particularly care about the scientific underpinnings: they just loved it.

Three part lists work, says Antonakis, because they are accessible and easy to understand. One example he gives is a manager telling his team: “We have the best product. We have the best team. But we didn’t make our targets.”

Everyone hearing this can immediately grasp the message: something isn’t right here.

(6) Expressions of moral conviction and (7) reflections of the group’s sentiments

Antonakis illustrates this point with a quote from one of his trainees, talking to a team that had suffered some setbacks.

He said to the team: “I know what is going through your minds, because the same thing is going through mine. We all feel disappointed and demotivated. Some of you have told me you have had sleepless nights; others, that there are tensions in the team, even at home because of this.”

“Personally, life to me has become dull and tasteless. I know how hard we have all worked and the bitterness we feel because success just slipped out of our reach. But it’s not going to be like this for much longer. I have a plan.”

(8) Set high goals and (9) project confidence that the goals can be achieved.

Here, Antonakis points to Ghandi as an example. Ghandi said that he would end the British occupation of India without violence – which many thought was impossible. But not only did he state ridiculously high goals, he also projected confidence that he could pull it off: “Even if all the United Nations opposes me, even if the whole of India forsakes me, I will say, ‘You are wrong. India will wrench with nonviolence her liberty from unwilling hands.’”

In business, a famous example is that of Sharp CEO Katsuhiko Machida, says Antonakis. In 1998 cathode-ray tubes dominated the TV market, and the idea of using LCD technology was commercially unviable. But Machida bet the company on LCD, saying: “By 2005, all TVs we sell in Japan will be LCD models.” He pulled it off (today Sharp is facing huge difficulties again, but that’s another story).

And then for the three non verbal techniques:

Use an (9) animated voice, (10) facial expressions and (12) gestures

A quite dramatic picture from the paper Antonakis published makes it immediately clear what some training can achieve: check out the “narrowness” of the profile of the participant before the training, and watch how he grabs the stage afterwards, with bigger, bolder gestures.

Which of these two guys would you put in charge of your new project?

How to train yourself to become more charismatic?

You could follow the training that prof. Antonakis gives. But if you can’t make it to Lausanne: part of the training seems to consist in watching videos or listening to recordings of famous leaders giving speeches (Obama, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Ghandi).

It would be even better to train this in small groups – or even just with one other partner. Here’s how Antonakis explains the process in his paper:

“We focused on explaining to managers the importance of charismatic leadership and highlighted how charisma could be engendered by displaying the CLTs. We also made extensive use of film scenes demonstrating charisma (e.g., from True-Blue, Reversal of Fortune, Dead Poets Society, Any Given Sunday) so participants could see the theory behind the CLTs in practice.”

“During the workshop, participants were put in groups of 2 and developed a short speech. We asked participants to create a scenario (hypothetical or based on a real situation) where they were addressing their followers about a particular issue.”

“Each pair of participants nominated one person to present the speech, and the intervener, together with the other participants, provided the presenters with feedback on their use of charismatic leader tactics.”

Also, it’s important to note that 9 of the 12 techniques are verbal. That means that charisma isn’t purely some magical quality that you have or don’t have. It has less to do with who you are than with what you say. Changing what you say is a lot easier than changing who you are.

With the outline we give here and some note taking, it shouldn’t be too hard to train yourself to use a few of these techniques and incorporate them in your daily routine.

Let us know how you fare!

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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