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Critical Faculties

Charm school

Scholars unpack the secrets of charisma, and suggest the elusive quality can be taught

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Oppenheimer
July 20, 2008

EVEN DIEHARD REPUBLICANS can't deny that Barack Obama is the more charismatic candidate for president this year. He has shown unprecedented power to raise money and to draw crowds - from Oregon to Pennsylvania, tens of thousands have turned out to hear Obama speak. Can one imagine John McCain trying to fill a football stadium for his nomination acceptance speech, as Obama plans to do in Denver next month? Obama's crowds during the primary season were not only the biggest of all candidates, but the most enthusiastic, with the weepiest adults and the most children held aloft on shoulders.

Obama is not the first politician to have worldwide, rock-star appeal, as a January newspaper headline from Frankfurt reminds us: "Lincoln, Kennedy, Obama." Throughout history, certain people have seemed to possess an unusual, even inborn power to command attention. The Greeks called it charisma, meaning "gift," and that sums up perfectly the popular view of this trait: that it's something mysterious, not earned but given, by God or by fortunate genetics. Some people just seem to have it.

But some scholars think we can do better. Charisma, they argue, can be analyzed, understood, and broken down into parts. Some researchers are discovering that particular words or phrasings are perceived as charismatic, while others have scrutinized nonverbal cues, such as how the charismatic smile or hold their heads. Trying to understand phenomena like Barack Obama - or, in recent years, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton - they are discovering some of the secrets of the gift.

In the process, it is becoming clear that while not everybody can be an Obama, there are aspects of charisma that even the least magnetic among us might learn. For some, learning what goes into charisma might mean we'll be better able to sell cars or copier toner, while for others it might help in a race for school committee. For everyone, though, the new charisma studies offer a deeper understanding of how some famous people, whether politicians or rock stars, conjure such extraordinary appeal.

The most ambitious theory of charisma yet - a theory that helps explain all the other theories - was described last year in the book "It," by Joseph Roach, professor of English and theater studies at Yale. What people are responding to in charismatics, Roach writes, "is the power of apparently effortless embodiment of contradictory qualities simultaneously: strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, and singularity and typicality among them." Among the people who have best embodied these contradictory qualities at the same time are King Charles II of England, Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson, and Princess Diana.

One way this embodiment of contradictions gives people charisma is when it makes them both grand and approachable. "People need to resent their idols as well as to adore them," Roach said in an interview, "tearing them down even as they build them up. People seek out figures whose personalities broadcast contradiction because they make it easier for them instantly to gratify their own contradictory needs. One of those needs is for 'public intimacy,' the assurance that the person who's not like anyone we've ever met is just like one of us after all."

Princess Diana, for example, was both royalty and a castoff from royalty, and being cast off aggravated an insecurity that made her need the people as the people needed her. "On walking into a room - whether she was visiting a prison, a hospice, or a leprosarium - she saw right away which ones needed her most, and they felt uniquely valued because she needed them," Roach writes. Those who lack Diana's contradictions, those who are as purely great or fortunate as, say, her mother-in-law, the queen, are far less charismatic.

Barack Obama embodies many contradictions. He is both black (his father) and white (his mother); from an exotic locale (by birth in Hawaii) and from a big city (by residence in Chicago); and Christian (by choice) and non-Christian (with two irreligious parents, one of them with Muslim ancestry). And surely these contradictions lend him an air of vulnerability and approachability. But Obama's contradictions don't quite make him a Diana figure. Rather, Obama shows how charisma can reside in other people's desire to figure one out. "He seems so familiar," Roach says. "But what could be more definitive of strangeness than to be running for president of the United States in 2008 with the name Barack Hussein Obama? But he holds those together. We're fascinated by the ability to hold contradictions and make them seem harmonious."

. . .

Americans are not the first people to wonder about, and be stumped by, this elusive quality. Societies throughout history have had words for the quality that Roach calls It; each word's connotations were slightly different, but each approached the same idea.

For the Roman orator Quintilian, "It was ethos, the compellingly singular character of the great orator," Roach writes. "For Castiglione, It was sprezzatura, the courtly possessor of which turned every head when he, and he alone, suavely entered a room. For many religious thinkers {hellip} It was expressed by the word charisma, a special gift vouchsafed by God, a grace or favor, which sociologist Max Weber then condensed into a principal of powerfully inspirational leadership or authority."

Americans today are "no closer to a satisfactory theory of It," Roach believes, but they "have recourse to a well-stocked slang lexicon, including stuff, spunk, and moxie."

Ever since Weber's work in the 1920s, sociologists in the West have usually treated charisma in a circular fashion: We know who has it by looking at who's popular. Studies have focused mainly on politicians and businessmen, with some scholars arguing, especially in the 1980s, that we know charismatic leaders because of their "transformational" style of leadership - they are the CEOs who don't just steady a ship, but help it change course. What's most striking about charisma studies, however, is how few there are. "Generally speaking," writes Jennifer Merolla of Claremont Graduate University, with two coauthors, "political scientists have been hesitant to pursue, and a few have even argued against, the study of charisma." It's just seen as too elusive to waste one's time on.

But lately some researchers have been more ambitious, trying to break charisma into its components. Ronald Riggio, of Claremont McKenna College in California, argues that charisma is essentially a species of communication; in his research, he breaks charisma into parts like "expressivity," "control," and "eloquence." And Riggio found that presidents considered charismatic, like Reagan and Lincoln, used far more metaphors in their speaking than the noncharismatic.

Others talk about how extraneous information can influence audiences. In 2005, magician Steven Cohen, author of "Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship," told Psychology Today magazine that he began handing out a biographical card to audience members before a show; the card mentioned that Cohen had entertained numerous corporate executives and TV personalities. "The audience's reaction to me was immensely better," Cohen said. "They think, 'I better pay attention to him because these people have.' "

One student of charisma thinks that Oprah Winfrey may be the most charismatic American of us all. John Neffinger is a founder of KNP Communications, a consulting firm that teaches clients how to be more charismatic through a particular combination of traits: strength plus warmth. "Winfrey shows lots of warmth both towards suffering people in her stories and towards people in her audience (i.e., 'You get a car!'), and her nonverbals show she genuinely shares their sorrows and joys," Neffinger says. "But she is also very stern and tough on folks who she feels have done wrong (just ask James Frey)."

Drawing on the work of Harvard and Princeton psychologists as well as the American National Election Studies, KNP emphasizes "nonverbal cues," the aspects of how a person's physical carriage combines with his words to himself to be persuasive. Nobody is better at this, Neffinger argues, than Winfrey, but other examples of strength mixed perfectly with warmth include Ann Richards and Fred Thompson. And, of course, "Reagan and Clinton are the two obvious examples." Not to mention Barack Obama, "24" actor and insurance pitchman Dennis Haysbert, and English actor Idris Elba.

"Strength is conveyed primarily with posture and gestures," Neffinger says. Good, erect posture is strong. Holding one's hands palms up and facing away is weak, as are "self-comforting" gestures, like rubbing one's arm. Warmth is conveyed mostly by a genuine smile (in which the eye muscles smile in addition to the mouth muscles); but one must not smile in a way that undermines strength.

"Raising your eyebrows can signal surrender, and angling them the wrong way can give you puppy-dog eyes," Neffinger says. "That might get you out of some trouble, but it won't get you elected."

Neffinger's theory of charisma - strength plus warmth - can of course be seen as another version of Roach's argument about charisma's being rooted in conveying contradictions. This similarity became even clearer when I asked Neffinger about people who are charismatic in ways other than speaking. "Musicians who lead with both their tough and sensitive sides count, too," he said. "Elvis was a tough greaser who crooned love ballads to his sweetheart - that'll do it."

It might be added that Elvis was also a white man making black-influenced music; there's that racial doubleness again, which in another version so many black Americans share. To people who don't participate in what W. E. B. Du Bois called double consciousness - "an American, a Negro; two warring ideals in one dark body," Du Bois wrote - the ability of black or partly black Americans to move between cultures can be a source of amazement, and envy. Except perhaps for Bill Clinton, there is no white personality who can speak familiarly to both whites and blacks as skillfully as Tyra Banks or Oprah Winfrey can. In a multiracial society, blacks are the "omni-Americans," in the words of literary critic Albert Murray. Once slave, now free - they embody the contradictions at the heart of America itself. That doesn't make every black person charismatic, but it helps.

It would seem, then, that there is the charisma we're born with and the charisma we cultivate. I can't develop a biography like Diana's any more than I can become African-American. And Roach, for his part, is skeptical that people can learn to be charismatic. But Neffinger argues that the particular combination of strength plus warmth is appealing in any speaker; even if the highest level of charisma may be unobtainable for most of us, an enhanced level of charisma is, by learning certain nonverbal cues (and, Neffinger would add, marrying them to well-written speeches), within grasp.

"Think of it this way," Neffinger says. "There is no special charisma pheromone or incantation. The effect is all produced by very ordinary behaviors - moving around, speaking. The trick is these ordinary behaviors are performed in specific, extraordinary sequences that taken together leave the unmistakable impression of charisma."

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Critical Faculties column. His work can be found at markoppenheimer.com.

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