O's resident life coach, Martha Beck, believes anyone (wallflowers included) can cultivate that intangible It factor, and she's got a four-step plan to prove it.
I've never really followed popular culture; my finger is on the pulse of things like 19th-century literature (which no longer has one). But the instant I saw a photo of one particular newly minted celebrity, I became a die-hard fan. It's not that his looks are especially unusual. You could pass someone like him on the street without even noticing. Nor does he possess any special talents. And yet, he's got that It factor. Whatever he's doing—striding past paparazzi, greeting a cheering crowd, or licking a reporter—Uno the beagle embodies pure charisma.
Uno was the first of his breed to win the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. His victory was remarkable because beagles are so...basic. They're the white cotton T-shirts of dogdom—they've got nothing to brush, fluff, or style—but when Uno took Best in Show, the crowd leaped up in a wild ovation. Newscasters announced his victory with goofy smiles. Everyone loved Uno's extraordinary brand of ordinariness.
I've always learned from beagles: Charles Schulz's cartoon character Snoopy sweetened my childhood, and my dear departed Cookie taught me worlds about my core values of peace, affection, and gluttony. But I've discovered new lessons by studying Uno's personal magnetism, and I've come to believe that there's no better way to amp up your charisma than to follow his example.
Actually, scratch that. You don't really need to learn charisma, any more than you need to learn laughter. I believe every human being is innately charismatic. Babies squint out from their unfathomably open minds with a fierce, ravenous wonder that makes it impossible not to stare back. But within a few months, or a few years, many children mask their real selves. Charisma, you see, draws attention, and attention can be a problem.
For example, by age 5 Melanie had learned to shrink and disappear when her mother went into drunken tantrums at home or, worse, in public. Ellyn was bullied by schoolmates who envied the way she drew her teachers' focus, so she taught herself not to. Perfectionistic Lisette deflected attention because she feared that anyone who noticed her would notice her shortcomings. This is why a number of us reach adolescence behaving more like whipped puppies than Westminster champions.
Below you'll find four steps to help you reveal your own charisma. If you read them and think, "Oh, I could never!", you've likely veiled your natural magnetism, then mistaken those veils for your real personality. This was probably a necessary move way back when, but to live fully now, you must drop your disguise. In Marianne Williamson's immortal words, "Your playing small doesn't serve the world."
Step 1. Strike Some Poses
We often use the word pose to imply fakery, but more simply, the word means "the position of our bodies." When her mother drank, Melanie literally curled inward, shoulders hunching, spine rounding, eyes down. Ellyn slumped to avoid seeming proud. Lisette spent three decades with her arms clamped against her ribs. They were all posing. So are you, right now. The question isn't to pose or not to pose, but how to know which body language reflects your true self.
Watch Uno the wonder beagle as his handler positions him like a toy. Being placed in show posture, far from constraining Uno, seems to fill him with confidence, sending his charisma into overdrive. For humans, as for dogs, physical movement influences moods. You may realize you spend a lot of the day in a charisma-crushing position. The posture you had as a toddler—spine straight, shoulders back, chest out, head high—may be long forgotten, but repositioning yourself as nature intended is essential to unveiling your innate charisma.
This is why soldiers stand at attention (basically Uno's "show pose"). Try it yourself: Stand up straight, broaden and drop your shoulders, bring your clavicles up and your chin down. If you don't feel a little like General Patton, exaggerate this pose until you do. Experiment with other postures, noting how each affects your sense of self. Hook your thumbs through your belt loops and become a cowboy; smile over your shoulder to feel seductive; imitate Michelangelo's David and find the courage to fight Goliath. Cultivating charisma is one of the few areas where I recommend adopting a "fake it till you make it" strategy, because any pose that elicits confidence, even if it feels phony, is actually a return to authenticity. No one was born beaten.
Here's a challenge: For the rest of today, stand, sit, and walk like the most charismatic person you know. Notice the moments when you feel foolish or embarrassed about projecting charisma. Those are the times when you have forgotten who you are. Persist for a few more days and you'll discover that charismatic body language is a self-reinforcing cycle. As your physical bearing becomes more aligned with your real self, other people will begin noticing you more. Don't let this affect your new behavior (in other words, don't revert to slumping). Ultimately, you must become confident enough to drop your pose of unimportance for good.
Diane Ackerman writes that "there are moments on the brink, when you can give yourself to a lover, or not; give in to self-doubt, uncertainty, and admonishment, or not; dive into a different culture, or not; set sail for the unknown, or not; walk out onto a stage, or not.... Resist then, and...there is only what might have been." Ackerman calls these moments "littoral," like the borders where dry land meets the ocean. A defining characteristic of charismatic people is that they choose to walk through littoral moments as if they had no doubt.
Now, let me take this moment to clarify what I mean: Narcissists can appear charismatic for a while, because they never doubt they're right. This conviction commands attention and respect, at least until they turn out to be hopelessly wrong. True charismatics, by contrast, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. They release doubt simply because doubt isn't useful when they're on the brink. For instance, once Uno was onstage, he never seemed to worry that he might not be a champion (even though no beagle had ever won much of anything). His certainty eventually converted everyone, including the judges.
To follow this example, find a littoral zone in your life and step beyond it as if you had no doubt. For Melanie, this meant arranging an intervention for her mother, faking confidence (which eventually became real) as she spoke the truth and asked her mother to enter rehab. Ellyn's first charismatic adventure was attending her high school reunion, walking tall and radiating authority, dropping the fear of offending or outshining others. Lisette joined Toastmasters, where she learned to stand and deliver, performance anxiety be damned. For these women, and each of us, a dip in the sea of adventure washes away more of the layers encrusting your charisma. Find your littoral moment, drop your doubts on the shore, and walk into the waves.
Step 3. Focus Outward
The Westminster Dog Show is a multibreed festival of self-consciousness. On videos of the event you can see everyone, human and animal, thinking, "Are they watching me? Can they see my hindquarters? How's my haircut?" Everyone, that is, except Uno. His eyes are on the crowd. When they cheer, he cheers back. When he howls to the judges, "Yo! How you doin'?," the normally staid officials grin like kids. Uno is making the single most charismatic move possible: He's shining his attention upon the beings around him.
That's what Melanie did during her mother's intervention. Instead of just rehearsing and delivering an impassioned speech, she paid close, respectful attention, which her mother (for once) returned. Both Ellyn (at her high school reunion) and Lisette (in exercises with her Toastmaster cronies) learned that groups also have personalities. Focus on any person or crowd the way Uno focused on the spectators at Westminster, with friendly curiosity, and your charismatic energy will touch every individual. Why? People pay attention to people who are paying attention to them. Step 4: Take Space and Make Space
Just because charismatic people focus intensely on others doesn't mean they forget themselves. Quite the contrary. The very essence of charisma is projecting unbounded awareness of others while setting rock-solid boundaries. When an aggressive reporter pushed a microphone into Uno's face, Uno unapologetically crunched it with his teeth before moving on to more courteous admirers. He showed none of the angry, aggressive boundary setting born of low confidence. Like any true charismatic, he had mastered the art of the clean response—in his case, a cheerful chomp.
Melanie held this effective, neutral energy at her mother's intervention, stating her position while refusing to either rail at, or give in to, her mother's drunken pleas. Ellyn found that when she let herself shine, she had to rebuff sycophants and unwanted suitors but that a firm, upbeat "No, thanks" got the job done. Lisette discovered that she could take the spotlight when she wanted it—and back away from it when she needed space. Her polite disinterest was a powerful version of the cheerful chomp.
If you play around with the steps above—and I certainly hope you do—you'll find that some bold poses feel more right than others, that life calls you to dive past specific littoral lines, that particular people and groups genuinely respond to your attention, and that you have your own way of administering cheerful chomps. The purpose of exploring these general elements of charisma is to find your unique style.
"Oh, golly shucks," you may be thinking at this point. "I'm not charismatic. I'm just an ordinary person." Yes, and beagles are just ordinary dogs. Charisma is the light that shines from the core of all ordinary beings. You can't strip the veils that cover your real nature without illuminating the world in a new, inimitable way. You'll become the singular you—the one, the only, the Uno—that everyone wants to see.
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).