To be charismatic is to “exercise a compelling charm which inspires devotion in others”, according to dictionary.com. Charisma is vital for a modern entrepreneur who wants to amass and leverage a tribe. Without it, customers don’t buy, employees don’t stay and the press don’t care. Charismatic leaders have a certain thing about them and mastering the art will make a huge difference to your work and professional relationships.
Vanessa Van Edwards knows a thing or two about charisma. As lead investigator at the Science of People, author of bestselling book Captivate: the science of succeeding with people and new book Cues: master the secret language of charismatic communication, Van Edwards has studied how leaders communicate to crack the code for her readers. She teaches online courses about body language, facial expression, nonverbal communication and lie detection and has conducted thousands of experiments including on TED talks and presidential addresses.
As a self-confessed “recovering awkward person,” Van Edwards shares her guide to how shy entrepreneurs can become ultra-charismatic.
The secret lies in mastering your cues, according to Van Edwards. Cues are “the tiny signals we send to others through our body language, facial expressions, word choices and vocal inflection.” These cues are vital to charismatic leadership because they “have a massive impact on how we, and our ideas, come across.” Your cues can either enhance your message or bad it, and there are three main categories.
1. Verbal cues for trust and confidence
Verbal cues are found in your pitches, the wording of your brand messaging and your face-to-face, virtual and email communication. Your verbal cues can bring team members onside and persuade customers to work with you. They can generate excitement or boredom with a few small tweaks.
Van Edwards’ book, Cues, opens with an analysis of Jamie Siminoff, the founder of Ring. Specifically, why he didn’t secure investment on the television show Shark Tank despite going on to sell Ring for $1 billion to Amazon. Van Edwards unpacks Siminoff’s entrance onto the show, which she thinks started his presentation off terribly. Siminoff he used inflection at the end of his two opening lines, his name and “I’m here to pitch”. “Both lines went up in tone at the end, which normally denotes a question,” explained Van Edwards. “But Siminoff wasn’t asking a question, so his opening lines signaled low confidence. Not what an investor wants to hear.”
But becoming a charismatic leader with your words isn’t as easy as avoiding inflection. According to Van Edwards’ framework, charisma is a perfect balance of warmth and competence. She advises that entrepreneurs identify where they are on the charisma grid then adjust their actions accordingly. Do people naturally warm to you but struggle to take you seriously? Or perhaps you are clearly capable but lack the people skills that will ensure your message resonates.
Many entrepreneurs are intelligent, capable and impatient, requiring work to move up the warmth scale. Here, Van Edwards advises using warm words in conversation openers. “Make sure you inspire a positive conversation. Ask ‘What’s good?’ or ‘Anything I can do to help you?’ Invite a colleague to tell you ‘Doing anything fun this weekend?’” Van Edwards wants you to avoid negative or boring openers, “such as ‘What’s up?’ or ‘How are you?’ which often don’t even register as questions.”
After you’ve nailed your in-person openers, analyze your email communications to see how you portray yourself. “Look at your last five important emails and see how often you use competent words (such as effective, productive, expert, science), charismatic words (such as interesting, lead, captivate, excellent, creative), and warm words (including connect , happy, cooperate, both.) Van Edwards also suggests avoiding negative or dismissive words, “including confusing, problem, mistake or stress.” Could your verbal cues be undermining your message?
2. Body language cues for assertiveness and openness
Nonverbal cues account for 65-90% of our total communication. “Entrepreneurs should aim to communicate the message of, ‘I’m a leader and here’s why you should join me’ with their body language,” explained Van Edwards. “But often they unknowingly do the opposite.”
Take the simple act of leaning. “Leaning forward shows you are interested in what someone is saying but leaning back or slouching gives the opposite effect.” Notice your leans to understand what they say about your interest levels throughout a meeting. Notice the leans of others and adapt your message to better resonate with them. If you are boring someone, you need to work out why and change tack.
“Mirroring during the first few minutes of an interaction can be an effective tactic for charismatic leadership, as long as it’s not overdone,” said Van Edwards, whose research also found that, “servers who repeat orders back to customers, using their exact words , receive 70% more in tips than servers who use polite and positive words.” Mirroring someone’s words and body language subconsciously shows you are on their team and it’s common in groups of friends.
Gestures were found to be a key part of successful TED talks, as Van Edwards’ and her team noticed that “charismatic communicators get buy in with their movements. They show big ideas using their hands which eases the cognitive load of their audience.” Gestures including wide hands to show something of great magnitude, finger pinches to demonstrate something tiny, and holding up fingers to match the number you say all mean less listener energy is spent concentrating on your words, so your message is better heard. Van Edwards also explained the “this is going to be good” cue, which ensures a listener is primed for receiving information. “This might be taking off your glasses, rolling up your sleeves or rubbing your hands together.”
Similarly, props have the ability to create or remove barriers. Van Edwards described on leaders who, for example, “physically move a computer before an important conversation to show removing a barrier,” with the effect of “making people more likely to open up.” More openness, more warmth, more charisma. This tip can be applied to speaking on stage, where Van Edwards advised you “avoid podiums” which can be a barrier to connection and “don’t microphone clutch” if you must speak into a mic. “Far better to be hands-free so you can make gestures including showing your palms (signalling openness) and are free to wander about the stage and among the audience.
3. Visual cues for first impressions and reputation
What to say and how to say it is vital to an entrepreneur’s perceived charisma. But what about before you have engaged with someone? This is where your online presence, clothing and professional brand precede your words and body language.
A friend of Van Edwards had a picture of himself next to the contact form on his website, as many entrepreneurs do. However, he was crossing his arms in the picture, which is a blocking cue. “I challenged him to change the image for one with his arms open and A/B test the page. What followed was a 5.4% increase in conversion rates.” Her friend’s demeanour was now friendly and inviting, which led to the enquiries he was previously blocking getting through.
“A powerful posture is the single most important cue for signaling confidence to others,” emphasized Van Edwards. Aim for assertiveness, not arrogance. In practice, a powerful posture means, “shoulders loose and down, a slightly wider foot stance than normal, and relaxed hands.” Experiments in successful speed dating endeavors backed this up when someone’s stance correlated with their number of matches.
Finally, what does your clothing say about your personal brand? A friend of Van Edwards, author and comedian David Nihill, landed a role at a top tier private education company in London. But before his first week he accidently shrunk his shirts in the dryer. With no time to spare, Nihill rolled up his shirt sleeves and began his new role whilst praying no one notice. The accidental effects of his shrunken-sleeved shirts were astounding. Soon, Nihill became known as the “roll up your sleeves kind of guy,” someone who got stuck in and made great decisions. This became his reputation at the company, and he started to identify with it. Nihill was promoted to the company’s designated problem solver, even though that wasn’t what he was hired to do. His salary tripled and he found himself reporting to the CEO in a company of over 50,000 people. Can you create a nonverbal brand with a simple visual cue? Nihill did it with shirt sleeves, but Elton John (glasses), Paris Hilton (chihuahuas), Sherlock Holmes (hat and pipe) and Coco Chanel (pearls) are all examples of people with visual cues that become part of their character.
Van Edwards knows that “it’s not enough to have great ideas. You also need to know how to communicate them.” Without being aware and intentional of your vocal, verbal, body language and visual cues, you could be consistently overlooked and miss out on tons of valuable opportunities. Some leaders “captivate a room, while others have trouble managing a small meeting.” Some “ideas spread, while other good ones fall by the wayside.” Big changes start with small cues.