To study that synchronous dance, Pentland and his colleagues at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory have developed a gadget that detects the signs of charisma and measures them in action. Called a sociometer, it's a wearable digital device about the size of an iPhone that's equipped with an infrared sensor and a tiny microphone. The gadget tracks patterns of speech and bodily movement, although it doesn't record one word of what's being said. Studies using the sociometer have found that people who incorporate lots of the unconscious gestures and expressions that researchers associate with charisma are more likely to be successful in pitching a new business venture or negotiating a salary hike.
In other words, it isn't just what you say but how you say it. "If a charismatic person pitches you a business plan, you're not going to know all the details," says Pentland. "But you know that she sounds like an expert and she's very enthusiastic, and you know that she seems honestly interested in you and what you think. So your mind makes a reasonable inference: 'This must be good!'"
Sounding like an expert and actually being one aren't always the same, of course—but researchers agree that bona fide charisma isn't a ruse. Nor can it be turned on and off like a light switch. "Truly charismatic people are authentic," says Howard S. Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside, who developed a frequently cited measure of charisma called the affective communication test, or ACT. "It's not like Clark Kent walks into a party and turns into Superman."
As Riggio puts it, "Charisma is a skill set. Michael Jordan might be messing around on the basketball court, missing shots, but if someone challenges him to a game, he'd blow everyone away. That doesn't mean he's 'faking it.'" Charisma works the same way. "A charismatic person genuinely likes, and is curious about, other people," Riggio adds. "The emotional component of that is really hard to fake—you either pick up on other people's emotions or you don't."
The Attraction of Opposites
Though charisma hinges largely on expressiveness, control, and sensitivity, its magnetic power intensifies when you mix in mystery and contradiction, says Joseph Roach, PhD, a professor of theater and English at Yale. In his book It, Roach writes that a supremely charismatic person has two sides: He or she is warm and tough, strong and vulnerable, down-to-earth and one of a kind. Think JFK, or FDR—or think of the most charismatically well-endowed man in contemporary popular culture: Don Draper of Mad Men (played by Jon Hamm), who is wounded yet stoic, ardent yet repressed, a suave man of means hiding a hardscrabble past—a swami of the sale who throws his clients and colleagues off balance with his singular alchemy of charm, irritability, and laser-beam eye contact.
But even at the rarefied level of presidents, talk show hosts, and fictional advertising executives, charisma is never simply about one person casting a spell over another.
"I once watched Bill Clinton enter a room at Yale, and he knew instantly who needed him most," Roach says. "It was like radar. Diana, Princess of Wales, had this, too. She could walk into a hospice and know exactly who needed her, but—and this is the paradox that makes charisma so powerful—the suffering person knew that she, Diana, needed him or her, too. There's an arc of mutual need underneath this magic."
Though Diana bloomed into her role as "the People's Princess," she began her public life as gawky, moon-eyed "Shy Di." Like most of us, she had to dig deep to find the glittering charisma she carried inside herself all along.
Cultivate your own charisma (even you, wallflowers) with Martha Beck's 4-step plan
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