Charisma is rare. It has to be, otherwise it would be pointless. It’s hard to describe – the OED has a good go, with "compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others" – but we know it when we see it. And we tend to think that, by and large, you either have it or you don’t.
Richard Reid, 46, argues otherwise. Reid, a consultant turned psychotherapist, is also a ‘charisma coach’, delivering classes to corporate audiences and to individuals. The underlying thesis is that charisma is not innate and immutable: it is coachable, and it is coachable via some exercises that are innovative, quirky and, at times, challenging.
Thus I find myself adopting the foetal position. The sofa on which I’m doing this is the sofa in Reid’s office in Soho, where we’re 20 minutes into a one-on-one masterclass. We’ve done an exercise in public speaking, and what follows is a demonstration of the power of posing. First, Reid asked me to give myself a score, out of 10, for my energy levels (a humdrum 6.5), before asking me to change my pose. "I want you to make yourself small for two minutes," he says.
So that’s what I do. I hoist my legs up onto the sofa, turn on my side, and draw my knees into my chest. Reid, sitting across from me, is monitoring a timer. Do I look at him? Do I shut my eyes? I’m unsure, but I feel charisma draining from me like water from a glass. It’s a long, awkward two minutes.
Eventually: "Hold it there. Give yourself a score out of 10."
I feel discombobulated as a result of being on my side. It’s hard to put a figure on my energy levels, but I definitely don’t feel any more charismatic than I did when I arrived. (And it’s not like I had much charisma to start with, judging by my editor’s unflattering decision to send me here. Andrew, please accept my uncharismatic thanks.)
Reid releases me from the foetal pose. "What I’m going to ask you to do now is the opposite of that," he says. "Spread yourself wide. And if you want to move around the room, just occupy the space."
I stand up and stretch my arms. At Reid’s suggestion, I slightly tilt back my head. I feel similarly awkward as earlier, but less pathetic (which I suppose would be an acceptable outcome for the session as a whole). When Reid asks me for my energy level, I report that it’s increased.
In explaining these exercises, Reid had cited Amy Cuddy, an American psychologist whose research on the ‘power pose’ had indirectly led to George Osborne and Theresa May taking absurdly wide-legged stances on stage. The concept of the ‘power pose’ has lost credence since then, but I buy Reid’s argument, which is borne out elsewhere in the scientific literature, that body language affects our mindset. By tweaking our body language we feel more calm, and by being more calm we make ourselves better company.
Reid himself models all this stuff pretty well. I’d worried that a man nicknamed ‘Mr Charisma’ might be in the televangelist mould, but in reality he’s relaxed, friendly, and easy to talk to. Charisma, as he’d told me early in the session, isn’t about looking wonderful. "It’s about taking the reverse approach to this and thinking: ‘What is the feeling I want to leave the other person with?’"
Most people, I’d guess, are fairly attentive to the feelings of our interlocutors. But there’s almost always room for improvement – sometimes more than we imagine. That was my conclusion after the first exercise Reid set me, which was the delivery of a two-minute impromptu speech on a subject I’m interested in. I embarked on a brief address on the interesting physiological benefits of dawn sunshine, touching on our circadian rhythms, the difference between natural and artificial light, and the effect of all this on our mood, appetite and... libido.
My speech ‘wasn’t bad’, Reid said. He advocates purposefulness in speaking, so he approved of my attempt to make a case for something that might benefit a listener. My body language, however, needed work. "There were a lot of different hand movements," said Reid kindly, "some of them adding movement, and some of them not doing much."
He explained that certain hand movements can be used to engender energy in your audience and to underline your credibility. To energise an audience, hold your hands palms-up as if you’re holding a balloon. To underline your authority, turn your hands palm-side down, bring them closer together, and straighten your fingers. Making the credibility gesture, Reid suddenly looked at me with great seriousness and said: "It’s really important that you listen to me when I say this." For a moment I felt transported to a headmaster’s office.
Reid got me to make two more speeches on the same topic. Both attempts generated useful feedback. Shorter sentences, I learnt, make it easier to change course when we sense our audience isn’t enjoying what we’re saying. They’re also easier to follow.
By the third take, I was using my hands to illustrate the passage of light through the eye, onto the retina, and then, having been communicated in the form of a sensory impulse, down the optic nerve and into the brain. Between gestures, I rested my hands in a neutral pose not unlike the one we associate with Angela Merkel. It was hard to orchestrate my eye contact, body language, verbal substance and tonal variation – not least because of my unusual affliction of speaking with more monotony when I am truly interested in a topic than when I am not – but it wasn’t like I was trying to remember dance moves. I could feel that all these things I was trying to orchestrate had concordance. And I could feel that if I kept practising I would improve. "The more you start thinking about these things," said Reid, "the more polished it becomes."
After the power pose stuff, Reid teaches me more ways to feel relaxed: a simple breathing exercise, some mindfulness techniques, some positive visualisation. A good method, I learn, is to practise thinking about a happy holiday while clasping your thumb and forefinger together. Once you’ve made a habit of it, you can induce those happy feelings, apparently, by doing the thumb-and-forefinger clasp, which is easy to do discreetly in a crowd.
It’s those busier gatherings that people often want Reid’s help with. When entering a party or a networking event, don’t gravitate towards a corner or a buffet table. Instead, says Reid, emulate the behaviour of people who are comfortable at these events. "They’ll slow down their entrance to the room and make a point of looking up and looking around. It sends out a message to other people, and it also influences how they" – the comfortable networker – "feel and behave in that situation."
You won’t become a natural gladhander overnight, but by continuing to challenge yourself you will slowly improve. One of Reid’s most interesting tips was to play the host: make sure people are enjoying themselves, offer drinks, greet people who’ve just arrived. "It’s gives a mental advantage."
I decided to test Reid’s advice over the days following our meeting. I’ve already found it useful, as per Reid’s advice, to exchange the question "How are you?", which is more of a greeting than enquiry, for something like "What’s new?", which offers your interlocutor the chance to say something more interesting than "Fine, thanks."
They might not take that chance, of course. As Reid acknowledges, not every interaction needs to be laden with honesty and meaning. Some conversations are what linguists call phatic: they’re about social interaction rather than semantics. "How are you?" is the most obvious example.
And in one sense, charisma is a zero-sum game. A world of equally charming people is a world in which nobody has charm. Then again, I can see that the world would be a better place if we could articulate ourselves better, forge stronger connections between each other, and hate networking less. Reid hopes that work like his "is, in a very small way, creating a ripple effect, because the more we have interactions that have value, the better people understand each other and come away feeling validated".
His sessions aren’t particularly cheap – £300 per session or £1,710 for six – but I can imagine people benefitting from them, and I will call on his techniques in future. Which means that if you ever speak to me and find me anything less than dazzlingly charismatic, you know who to blame.
The Daily Telegraph
10 sure-fire charisma tips
1. When entering a room, slowly look around it to dampen your stress response.
2. Calm yourself with exercises like 4-4-6 breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and exhale for six. Repeat.
3. When greeting people, ask open-ended questions like ‘What’s new?’
4. Consider what emotion you want people to come away with and act accordingly.
5. If speaking in public, use short sentences to keep your audience’s attention and to change the topic if needed.
6. To communicate enthusiasm, hold your hands palms-up as if holding the underside of a large balloon.
7. To communicate authority, hold your hands palms-down with straight fingers.
8. Feel unsure of yourself at a work gathering or a party? Pretend you’re the host – look after people.
9. Don’t use vague language like ‘a little bit’ and ‘quite’. Charismatic people have firm views.
10. Use these tips even when they don’t seem necessary. Whenever we interact with people, Reid says, we make a statement about our brand.