How do you develop charisma in a virtual world?

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Who doesn’t want to be more charming and likeable with your colleagues – especially when it can help you be more productive? Steve Martin, visiting professor of behavioural science at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and CEO of Influence at Work, shares his advice

There’s a form of abductive reasoning known as the Duck Test. It goes something like this: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Tests like these are built on an ability to identify the unknown by observing its habitual characteristics. A kind of “I know it when I see it”. Consequently, it works brilliantly for ducks. For charisma, though? Not so much.

Google ‘charisma’ and you get the following: “A compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” Sounds great! But the problem with definitions like this is they simply throw up more questions. What gives someone the compelling attractiveness or charm that inspires such devotion in others?

We need to know what the constituent ingredients that make up charisma are. Handily, scientific research can help. Here are five things researchers have shown signal charisma, along with ways to put them to good use to increase your success at work.

1. Articulate a collective vision

Martin Luther King Jr. espoused compassion and love. Churchill was bombastic and decisive. Eva Perón was a flag-waver for the underdog. Despite their different goals and outlooks, each shared a common feature crucial to their charismatic nature: the ability to appeal to the values and identity of the many, rather than the few.

They gained their charismatic allure by tapping into the identity of the group and creating a collective vision. So, when presenting your ideas, make sure you highlight the shared histories and identities that exist between you and your audience before presenting your vision for the future.

2. Tap into shared emotions

With so many of us on a near-constant treadmill of one Zoom call to the next, it’s easy to forget that a human exists on the other side. Research shows that charismatic messengers are aware of this and aren’t afraid to use emotionally-laden language that signals their deep connection.

I’m not advocating outbursts of emotion or overt theatrics on your team’s next online strategy meeting, but there is wisdom in taking steps to induce or remind people of the feelings of connectedness that exists in your group.

3. Use more metaphors

Aristotle noted that the skilful use of metaphor is the mark of a genius. But metaphors don’t work because an audience sees a messenger as more intelligent – they work because they make messages more vivid. They invoke symbolic meanings and trigger emotional reactions in others, without actually changing the meaning of what is being communicated.

Politicians use them liberally – and with good effect. For example, US Presidents elected for a second term in office typically used twice as many metaphors in their first inauguration speech than those Presidents who only served one term. So, take the time before a particularly important meeting or presentation to think about ways you can convey your proposal or idea through the use of a story or metaphor.

4. Demonstrate ‘surgency’

Surgency is characterised by possession of an overly positive outlook and high energy. People with surgency are seen as optimistic, sociable and approachable. They express greater levels of energy, enthusiasm and positivity. Although this can be hard to convey on a Teams call, it’s not impossible. A subtle change to your camera set-up might be all that’s required. Tilt your screen so people can see your expressions and hand movements. Maybe even stand up to address people as if you were presenting and they were in the room.

Projecting energy is important to charisma. Studies find that TED talks frequently receive more views and likes not necessarily based on the subject matter, but rather on how many hand gestures the presenter makes.

5. Balance status and connectedness

Research shows how adept charismatic people are at balancing their ‘positional status’ over an audience (their expertise, for example) with their connectedness and warmth to them (through their humility and humour). So, when presenting online, avoid just talking at people and be sure to use the presentation mode sparingly. Importantly, turn it off when you are done. If you do have to present, periodically pause during your presentation to give people the chance to interact and warm to you.

Steve Martin is the co-author of Messengers, Who we Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why and CEO of Influence at Work

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