Transcript: Olivia Fox Cabane Debunks Charisma at Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner

Olivia Fox Cabane

Olivia Fox Cabane, the author of The Charisma Myth, debunks charisma in this talk titled “Build Your Personal Charisma” at Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner. Here is the full transcript.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Olivia Fox Cabane on Build Your Personal Charisma at Stanford


Thank you so much. Thank you so much. And I’m honored and flattered to see that it’s not just standing room only, but three rows deep. So the pressure is on.

It was a sunny day in New York City 1955. The streets flowed with traffic, the sidewalks bustled with busy people. And Marilyn Monroe wanted to prove a point. With a photographer in tow, she walked down into Grand Central Station. Though it was the middle of the week and the platform was packed with people, not a single person noticed her, while she stood waiting for the train. As the photographer’s camera clicked, she boarded the train and rode along quietly in a corner of the car. Nobody recognized her.

What Marilyn wanted to show was that just by deciding to, she could be either glamorous Ms. Monroe or plain Norma Jeane Baker. On the subway, she was Norma Jeane. But when she resurfaced onto the busy New York sidewalks, she decided to turn into Marilyn. So, she looked around and she teasingly asked the photographer: “So, do you want to see her, the Marilyn?” And then he said, there were no grand gestures — she just “fluffed up her hair, and struck a pose.” And yet, with this simple shift, she suddenly became magnetic. An aura of magic seemed to ripple out from her, and everything stopped.

Time stood still, as did the people around her, who starred in amazement as they suddenly recognized the star standing in their midst. In an instant Marilyn was engulfed by fans, and “it took several scary moments” to help her escape the growing crowd.

Charisma has always been an intriguing and controversial topic. And when I tell people that as part of my leadership work, I “teach charisma,” they often exclaim, “But I thought it was something that you’re either born with or not.” Some see it as an unfair advantage, others are eager to learn, but everyone is fascinated. And they are right to be so.

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Charisma gets people to like you, trust you, and want to be led by you. It can determine whether you’re seen as a follower or a leader, whether or not your ideas get adopted, and how effectively your projects are implemented. Like it or not, charisma can make the world go round, because it makes people want to do what you want them to do.

Now whenever I’m asked how I got into this field, I have to admit, it was personal desperation. Because by nature, I am a socially inept awkward introvert and by my late teens, I realized that I really only had two choices, either exile myself to a desert island or somehow try to make this whole human thing work. So, I chose the latter for now, but I’m still keeping the desert island option open.

In studying charisma, it turns out that of all the myths surrounding the subject, the most commonly held was of charisma as an innate, magical personal quality. Instead, as extensive research has shown, charisma is the result of specific behaviors. This is the reason — one of the reasons — why charisma levels fluctuate and as Marilyn demonstrated it can be there one moment and gone the next.

In fact, in controlled laboratory experiments, researchers were able to raise or lower people’s level of charisma, as if they were turning a dial, just by instructing them to display specific charismatic behaviors. Charisma has been turned into an applied science.

Now one of the reasons why charisma is mistakenly held to be innate is that, like many other social skills, charismatic behaviors are usually learned early in life, when people don’t even consciously realize they are learning them. They’re just trying new behaviors, seeing the results, and refining them. Eventually, the behaviors become instinctive.

Some people, however, make a conscious decision that they are going to learn this whole charisma thing. Steve Jobs is a great example. And if you go to my blog, you’ll see a piece called demystifying the Steve Jobs magic, showing with videos how he consciously, gradually acquired, step by step, each of the charismatic behaviors we’re covering tonight. The blog is called

Now, of course, in learning charisma, not everyone is going to become Steve Jobs, nor Bill Clinton for that matter. But everyone can learn enough charisma to see a measurable difference in their daily lives.

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Behaviors That Create Charisma

So with that said, what are the behaviors that create charisma? Well, they fall into three categories: behaviors of presence, behaviors of power, and behaviors of warmth. All three components of presence, power and warmth are critical to achieve charisma. The only thing that changes is what kind of charisma you will get depending on which of these components is strongest.

So, let’s look at each of these components in turn.

Presence: when people describe their experience of seeing charisma in action, whether they met Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or the Dalai Lama, they often mention what an extraordinary presence the person had. And presence is the single most requested aspect of charisma when I’m coaching executives. They want to increase their boardroom presence or their executive presence. And they’re right to focus on it, because presence turns out to be the real core of charisma, the foundation upon which all else is built.

When you’re with a charismatic master, take Bill Clinton, for example, he gives you the feeling that he’s completely here with you, in the moment. Present. And I’ve met hardened Republicans, who’ve told me Bill Clinton, I hated him before I met him, I hated him after I met him, but while I met him, ma’am, I loved the man.

Have you ever felt in the middle of a conversation as if only half your mind were present, while the other half was busy thinking about something else? Raise your hands if that’s ever happened to you. All right then.

Do you think the other person noticed? Yes. When this happens, there is a good chance that your eyes will glaze over or that your facial reactions will be a split second delayed. Here is the thing: because people can read facial expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds, the person you’re speaking to will likely notice the smallest delays in your reactions. And on a gut level, they’ll get the feeling that something is not quite right, something doesn’t quite fit. This delay, technically called an incongruence, can even give them the feeling that you’re being inauthentic. Nothing ruins trust or charisma faster than appearing inauthentic.

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We think we can fake presence. We think we can fake listening. We think that as long as we seem attentive, it’s OK to let our minds turn on other things, but we’re wrong. When you’re not fully present in an interaction, the person you’re speaking to will likely notice it. I’m sure you’ve had this experience of speaking with someone who wasn’t fully listening. You noticed.

So, how do you get presence? Well, my favorite technique to stay present in a conversation is kind of quirky, but remarkably effective. So, right now, if you would, focus on the physical sensations in your toes — your toes, big toes, little toes, all the toes in between however many of them you have, focus on the physical sensation in your toes. What this does is that it forces your brain to sweep your body from head to, of course toe, and gets you very physically present in the moment. So, you do that for only a split second, then you get back to the conversation. But it’s very effective. Just by focusing on your toes you can up your level of charisma immediately. I realize that you probably weren’t expecting your toes to be crucial to charisma, they are. That’s one technique.

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