When I applied to the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, I was required to subject myself to a three-hundred sixty degree evaluation by my peers, friends, and superiors.  Most people either elaborated on my budding strengths or shared innocuous observations.  However, one person dared to share more critical feedback, writing “you are an intelligent, analytical person but need to develop poise to advance your future career.”  Those words immediately dealt a large blow to my self-confidence.  I knew what the word poise meant, but as she had accurately observed I did not know the first thing about exhibiting it.

Over time, I became more and more obsessed with the concept of poise.  I quickly intuited that poise is not only physical composure but also social and emotional composure.  However, my real breakthrough came when I realized that poise is a precursor to rapport and that rapport is the precursor of charm.  Several years of further introspection revealed that charm plus genuine persuasion equals charisma, the ultimate tool of influence.

The suggestions which follow will help you build charisma.  To accelerate your journey, remember that charisma is a connection that you make one individual at a time.  It is also a power to be used only ethically and sincerely.

Mirror the other person

If you observe close friends and family, you will notice that they have a tendency to mirror each other in a multitude of ways spanning verbal and non-verbal communication.  Because of this, mimicry is associated with likeability and trust.  To rapidly build rapport with others, you should consciously but subtly do the same.

At least half of the information that people exchange during a conversation is non-verbal.  You can begin to mirror a person’s body language in understated ways.  For example, if they have their weight shifted on one leg, then you can do the same.  In general, it is best to mirror positive body language, though the principle works with negative body language as well.  For example, suppose another individual has their arms crossed not out of comfort but out of disagreement.  Once you have synchronized your body language to theirs, you can lead them delicately to relax their arms into a less confrontational position.

Both words and vocal style make up verbal communication.  When mirroring another person, you can start by adopting their volume, speed, and tone. Next, align your word selection.  The sometimes maligned though generally useful field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) provides some guidance here.  NLP teaches that people reveal through their word choice the dominant manner in which they process information.  For example, visual people might use words like “I see what you are saying…”  Auditory people say “I hear what you are saying…”  Finally, kinesthetic people use either emotional or tactile words such as “I sense you are right.”

Employ tools of influence

In his groundbreaking book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University detailed six methods of influence.  Knowing these will help you to exert ethical influence and to defend against manipulation.

  • Reciprocity: This concept taps into the human need to repay a favor.  To exercise it, you must give something away in order to create a tacit obligation.
  • Scarcity: This concept plays to desire.  To exercise it, you should be forthright in sharing when you possess something that is rare.  If your product or service is not hard to come by and you hold it out to be so, then people will see through the subterfuge and view you as manipulative.
  • Authority: This concept draws on social norms of respect.  To exercise it, project yourself as an expert by sharing compelling and legitimate evidence.
  • Escalation:  This concept taps into people’s wish to appear consistent in their actions.  To exercise it, begin by securing a small commitment and build from there.  Despite its power, this one is generally the most manipulative and should be used sparingly, if at all.
  • Conformity:  This concept leverages the human need to fit in.  To exercise it, provide testimonials by independent third parties about the value of your product or service.
  • Liking:  This concept ties to people’s tendency to trust people they like. To exercise it, develop positive relationships and find common interests.

Make the other person know that you sincerely care about him or her

While concepts like reciprocity and escalation represent the more aggressive tools of influence, the principle of liking exemplifies a softer side.  Genuinely caring about other people is the essence of charm.  In short, people like and trust people that like and trust them.  Because this is so important, it bears expanding upon here at some length.

To grasp the power of instant rapport, I encourage you to conduct an easy social experiment.  As you walk down the street, smile and make eye contact with others as you pass them.  Nine times out of ten, you will see their face light up and return the warmth.  Often, the other person will scan your face wondering ‘Do I know you from somewhere?”  You will also elicit the occasional audible greeting.  Remember that there is a huge difference between a genuine smile versus a grin or a smirk.  With the latter, only the mouth muscles move.  You should also conduct the dark side of the experiment by making eye contact accompanied by a neutral or scowling expression.  Most of the time, others will rapidly avert their eyes so that they do not absorb any of your bad karma.

Once, after receiving a promotion, I sought advice from one of my new peers.  He recommended that I tone down the volume and frequency of my ubiquitous smile.  His belief was that people only take serious people seriously.  Nonsense.  The power of smiling and eye contact is magnified in the business environment where you have recurring interactions with people.  Why?  Just ask yourself whom you would rather be around – someone that radiates warmth and happiness or the opposite?

Academic researchers have long known that tactile stimulation, or simply touch, is closely associated with liking.  For instance, in 1985, Stanley Jones and Elaine Yarbrough went so far as to study and catalog twelve distinct meanings of physical contact including appreciation, affection, and friendship.  The lesson is that appropriate, casual touches, for example to the shoulder or elbow, help build affinity.

Rapport building techniques are more powerful in combination as researchers Jacob Hornik and Shmuel Ellis discovered in 1988.  Hornik and Ellis sent graduate students to a suburban Chicago shopping mall to ensnare passersby to participate in a marketing survey.  They discovered that, on average, interviewers who made eye contact and a casual touch got 76.4% of people to take part in the survey.  Shoppers greeted without these pleasantries only consented 53.4% of the time.

Before you get too taken with this approach, note that gender matters.  Though the overall response rate was 65.3%, there were extremes depending on the gender combinations of the interviewers and the shoppers.  When a female interviewer touched and made eye contact with male shoppers, the willingness to participate in the survey was a stunning 91.6%.  In contrast, when a male interviewer applied the same techniques to female shoppers, the response rate fell to a paltry 55.6%.  Lest you conclude that men should avoid appropriate touch to establish trust, consider that male interviewers that approached female shoppers without eye contact or touching only garnered a 47.2% response rate.  The touch and gaze combination works to build rapport; it simply works better for women than for men.

To prove that you care about someone, ask people to share their story and their dreams and then actively listen to what that person has to say.  Sincere interest is interesting.  Adept listeners go about their art in a particular way.  First, they listen with every fiber of their being including their ears, their eyes, and their body.  They listen as if the person they are conversing with is the only other individual in the world.  Great listeners ignore every form of distraction including technology such as phones, computers, and watches.  Second, they think exclusively about what the other person is saying.  Finally, they are ready to speak.  Rather than holding a separate, parallel conversation, expert listeners respond constructively to what the other person is saying.

There are few words more pleasant to the ear than one’s own name.  Hence, to build trust, you should know and address other people by name.  As with every recommendation for building rapport, this too must be done with sincerity and subtlety.  People like to hear you use their name because it makes them feel known and respected.  It shows you felt they were important enough to take the time to commit them to memory.  However, avoid using someone’s name excessively during a conversation.  This behavior, associated with overly-slick salespeople, comes off as purely calculating.

When it comes to building rapport, opposites do not attract.  People are drawn to others that look and think like them.  Hence, to establish trust, you should strive to identify and highlight similarities.  Similarities come in all flavors including physical (ethnicity, height, etc.), situational (alma mater, job function, etc.), and intellectual (hobbies, movies, etc.)  Even if you struggle to discover similarities such as these, you can always find areas of agreement in your current conversation.

Just as the conventional wisdom that ‘opposites attract’ is completely off base when it comes to rapport building, so too is the belief that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’  That could not be farther from the truth.  The greater the number of interactions that you have with someone, the more likely they are to trust you.

Another important element of being charismatic is showing that you are human.  One part of this is exposing your natural sense of humor.  People are drawn to others that are witty and light-hearted.  The combination of passion and light-heartedness is magical, albeit difficult to achieve.  Remember not to take things too far though.  Excessive humor, and especially sarcasm, will not win you any points.  A second part of showing that you are human is revealing vulnerability through gradual emotional self-disclosure.  People may respect emotional automatons, but they will not follow them.  Instead, individuals connect with leaders that have faced and risen above adversity.  That way, they have the confidence that you will guide the way in good times and in bad.

Go the extra mile

To be charming, you must go the extra mile to show appreciation for others.  This is one of those obvious rules that everybody knows but to which few adhere.  Though better than nothing, a simple “thank you” is not enough.  A charming show of appreciation combines sincere gratitude with specific acknowledgment of the effort a person provided as well as what their actions meant to you.  For example, imagine that you have asked a colleague to interview candidates for a position that you are filling.  A proper show of appreciation is “Thank you for spending twelve hours interviewing candidates for my open position.  Your input on Mary’s communication skills was instrumental in my decision to hire her.”  To magnify the effect of your gratitude tenfold, deliver your appreciation publicly and as soon as possible after their exceptional performance.

Sincere, specific appreciation is table stakes.  To take your charm to the next level, express your gratitude in ways that demonstrate that you took the time to truly care.  You will stand out from the crowd if you employ old world courtesies like hand written thank you notes and relevant gifts.   You no doubt receive hundreds of emails every day, but when was the last time you received a genuine handwritten letter?  In order to give a relevant gift, you must have purposefully had a social conversation to deeply understand an individual’s personal interests.  Gift cards and cash are nice but not charming.  If you find out someone loves books, probe deeper to see if they like fiction or non-fiction.  If non-fiction, then do they enjoy biography, history, business motivation?

Of course, there is another level of appreciation that transcends tangible gifts.  The most powerful reward you can give is the gift of relationships.  Instead of hording your valuable friends, become the bridge between the individuals in your lives. Just like a matchmaker, your mission is to facilitate timely, relevant connections without being an intrusive intermediary.

The true masters are consistently and continuously charming.  To reach that ideal, you must strive to anticipate and proactively address the needs and concerns of others.  Concentrate on actions that touch emotional factors such as hope, ambition, desire, and the need to feel important.  In the ultimate state of social resonance, you become one with the other person so that your wants and needs are completely aligned.

Best selling author and keynote speaker John Maxwell is universally adored as a charismatic leader.  By indefatigably showing people that he believes in their potential, John is the personification of going the extra mile.  Though his practices are innumerable, one of my personal favorites is his ’30 second rule.’  This simple practice directs you to say something genuine and encouraging in the first thirty seconds of every conversation.  Exercise this rule in your personal life and in your professional life.

Follow your own path

Making the other person know that you care and going the extra mile will elevate you from simply building rapport to being charming.  If you stop there, then you will have gained the benefits that accrue to a social chameleon.  However, to elevate charm to charisma, you must know and express your distinct personality, convictions, and values.  Those elements combine to make your personal brand.  Follow your own path with audacious passion and with no fear of failure. Express who you are with infectious enthusiasm.  Share your vision one person at a time and one moment at a time.


Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to develop charisma:

  • Mirror the other person
  • Employ tools of influence
  • Make the other person know that you sincerely care about them
  • Go the extra mile
  • Follow your own path

Speak Your Mind