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Why is it that some people seem to exude charisma or presence which captivates and influences those around them, while others have the opposite effect? Did you ever wish you could be more charismatic or have more presence – whether it’s while you’re teaching, public speaking, at your work place, or in your day-to-day life?

Recently in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article profiling the star of The Dog Whisperer – Cesar Millan. A big fan of The Dog Whisperer myself, I’ve always been impressed with his bearing and confidence; the guy has great presence. Although Malcolm primarily comments about Cesar Millan and his show, I want to bring to light some of the truths that the article touches upon regarding presence. This post attempts to distill these truths, as well as others, explaining the make-up of a charismatic person and how you can develop these characteristics yourself.

Presence is defined as the ability to project a sense of ease, confidence, and self-assurance. It accompanies all those who are charismatic. Researchers have observed that those with an infectious personality unintentionally cause others to copy their body language and facial expressions. What’s also interesting is they are impervious to the influences of other charismatic people.

Just getting someone to copy your body language isn’t the extent of what having charisma can do. As shown throughout history, charismatic leaders can transform the preferences, needs, values, and aspirations of those who follow them. Their presence and influence causes followers to make great personal sacrifices in the interest of some vision and to perform way beyond their norm. Many people attribute this to their power as an orator and say THAT is the source of their presence. Actually, it goes beyond that.

Can this be learned? The answer is a most definite yes. However, it can’t be faked. Confident, resonating speech is only half the equation. Movements are the other half, and movements must be congruent with speech. This is where we come to The Dog Whisperer.

Ethologists – those who study animal behavior – have been able to determine that dogs are keenly aware of human body language. For example, seemingly small details such as leaning slightly forward or backward are interpreted as a threatening gesture or a non-aggressive one. Tilting your head to the side will disarm a dog while staring head on challenges him. Even the difference between slumping your shoulders and standing shoulders squared can determine whether your dog ignores or obeys you.

If you’ve ever watched The Dog Whisperer, you probably have been impressed with his amazing influence over dogs. His ability to cause them to become “calm and submissive” is almost morphinic in nature. However, those who have met him say his presence and charisma affects humankind as well. Was he born with some special ability? Maybe. Others say it’s his phrasing.

Phrasing is the vocabulary and syntax of gesture and movement – and dogs can read ours like a book. According to Karen Bradley, a movement expert from the University of Maryland, “Cesar has beautiful phrasing”.

Not all of us are movement experts, however subconsciously we are very aware of each others phrasing. The great communicators are those who can match their phrasing with their communicative intentions – and this is the key to their charisma and presence. It’s not just the words that matter, but how they’re presented. When someone says one thing and their body says something else, our minds are not impressed.

This can be clearly seen with some of the different Presidents we’ve had:

Movement analysts tend to like watching, say, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan; they had great phrasing. George W. Bush does not. During this year’s State of the Union address, Bush spent the entire speech swaying metronomically, straight down through his lower torso, a movement underscored, unfortunately, by the presence of a large vertical banner behind him. “Each shift ended with this focus that channels toward a particular place in the audience,” Bradley said. She mimed, perfectly, the Bush gaze—the squinty, fixated look he reserves for moments of great solemnity—and gently swayed back and forth. “It’s a little primitive, a little regressed.” The combination of the look, the sway, and the gaze was, to her mind, distinctly adolescent. When people say of Bush that he seems eternally boyish, this is in part what they’re referring to. He moves like a boy, which is fine, except that, unlike such movement masters as Reagan and Clinton, he can’t stop moving like a boy when the occasion demands a more grown-up response.

To develop charisma and presence we must train our motions to coincide with our intention of communication. We must learn to integrate our posture and gestures with our speech. Movement specialists say that we all have a certain phrasing baseline – it’s this baseline that we need to improve upon. Here are some examples to help you do this:

  • Begin first by observing yourself. What is your body doing as you speak with others? If you are in a leadership position (such as a parent), what is your body doing when you are asking someone to do something? Do your movements seem to conflict or coincide with your words?
  • Watch some of the phrasing masters, those people who particularly impress you as being charismatic and having presence. Try to pick out what it is that they do with their posture and gestures (this includes both hand and face gestures) and what they are saying in concert with their phrasing. This could be an actor, a friend, a family member etc.
  • Pay particular attention to the dynamics of the movement they are gesturing. Is it smooth? Does it explode? In other words does it start off slowly, increasing momentum until it ends abruptly? Or does it do the opposite, starting off fast only to fizzle out in the end? What are they saying in connection with the movement?
  • As you record your findings, begin to practice them in front of a mirror, mimicking what you observed. Are you convincing yourself? :)
  • Only after practice, begin incorporating this into your daily life – at the workplace, with the cashier etc.

I’ve seen this work in my own life. For example, every Tuesday I volunteer as a Cub Scout leader. Getting seven boys between the ages of 7-10 to behave requires that they have a certain respect for you. Initially, I felt I was doing great, keeping them under control and having fun until an especially hyper-active kid joined. He has an amazing ability to get all the other boys going. This compounded with my fading control sent them all over the place. I questioned what it was that made them change. It wasn’t until I noticed that my body language wasn’t in harmony with my words that I began to gain control again.

Because of my dread of feeling out of control, it was affecting the way I held myself physically around the boys. Normally I hold myself pretty confidently, but as things began to get out of control I noticed I would curl my shoulders forward, drop my head, and slouch – almost like I was standing in the fetal position. I would tell them to calm down, trying to be firm in voice but my body betrayed my true feelings. They didn’t buy it for one second.

The next week I resolved to work on my phrasing and it worked! I held myself more confidently, stopped curling my body and broadcasted a presence that was in control and confident. As I aligned my phrasing with my words they listened! It was the coolest thing!

One last example can be seen with police officers and firemen. Firemen and police officers learn a technique they call “Command Presence”. They attend entire classes on the subject which is nothing other than learning to combine phrasing with speech – and it’s very effective. If you have ever been pulled over or been asked a question by a police officer who has mastered Command Presence, do you remember the feeling that you’ve had? The respect and confidence that they instill in you is no coincidence. This is another result of specific phrasing combined with communication. Good actors do it, charismatic politicians do it, dancers do it; all those who can project a powerful presence.

Those with presence and charisma draw a following because of their ability to say things in a way that’s appealing. Their strength lies in the ability to convey messages in a most convincing manner that charms those around them. This is a result of excellent phrasing harmonized with verbal communication. As your presence and charisma grows, and you develop your own set of followers, please refrain from creating another Nazi Germany, a bunch of Branch Davidians or a Heaven’s Gate Cult. We’ll all be very grateful. ;)

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