The 3 Elements of Charisma: Presence

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 6, 2013 · 36 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

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Are you a senior in high school running for Student Council President?

Are you an entrepreneur looking to make a successful pitch and attract investors?

Are you a military officer working to win your men’s loyalty?

Are you a salesman trying to land some new clients?

Are you a college professor wanting to get through to your students?

Are you a single guy looking for love?

No matter your situation in life and your individual aims, one of the most important tools for success is your personal charisma. Charisma is what allows you to command a room, draw others to you, and convince people of your ideas. It’s an essential part of being the kind of leader who wins devoted followers who are willing to go to the ends of the earth for you. Charismatic men are perceived as both likeable and powerful, a dynamic, irresistible combination that opens endless doors to them.

Charisma may seem like a mysterious quality — something that some men are born with and some are not. But this is happily not the case. You don’t need to have hit the genetic charisma lottery in order to develop yourself into a man with powerful magnetism.

Far from being a magical and inexplicable trait, charisma can be broken down into a set of concrete, largely nonverbal behaviors that can be learned, practiced, and made natural. Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, places these behaviors into three categories: Presence, Power, and Warmth. When deftly combined, these three components produce strong personal magnetism.

We will be devoting an entire post to each of these three components of charisma. Each will provide an overview of the component, as well as practical tips for developing and implementing it. Later on, we will cover charismatic body language, and, because not every “style” of charisma is appropriate for every situation, we’ll discuss what behaviors to use or de-emphasize in different situations.

For today, we’ll start off by talking about the first component of charisma: Presence.

Charisma Component #1: Presence


Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and you could tell you didn’t have their complete attention?

How did it make you feel?

Probably a bit annoyed.

Sadly, it seems fewer and fewer people are fully present and engaged with the individuals they’re interacting with. Being completely engaged in a conversation has likely always been a challenge, as we all have a bit of the conversational narcissist in us.

Now that smartphones have saturated modern life, being fully present is even harder. People today try to (unsuccessfully) switch their attention between two worlds — the real world populated by the people they are physically present with and the cyber world which sends them dispatches through their phone. Go to any restaurant in America and you’re bound to see tables of people staring blankly at their smartphones and hardly engaging with each other. This video that circulated the intertubes a few weeks ago perfectly captures the way in which technology has created a society of non-present screen gawkers. Pretty poignant.

The good news about all this is that it’s now incredibly easy to set yourself apart from the pack simply by being fully present with people and giving them your complete attention.

When you think of charisma, you might think of trying to make yourself seem super awesome to others. But the paradoxical secret of charisma is that it’s not about trumpeting your good qualities, but making the other person feel good about himself. Real charisma makes the other person feel important; when they finish an interaction with you, they feel better about themselves than they did before.

Focusing your mental and emotional energy on someone as you interact is how you create that feeling of importance. People fundamentally want attention – they want to be recognized and acknowledged.

And you don’t have to be an outgoing, uber-social extrovert in order to have and display charisma. In The Charisma Myth, Cabane cites tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk as an example of someone who has mastered the art of charismatic presence. He’s incredibly intelligent and a pretty quiet guy by nature; however, he counterbalances his introverted inclinations with intense focus and presence. He doesn’t need to be the extroverted life of the party to seem magnetic; instead of chatting everybody up and offering a little of himself to a lot of people, he concentrates on giving his full, intense attention to a few; in so doing, he makes them feel incredibly special. Charisma isn’t necessarily about quantity, but quality.

Conveying presence is a simple concept, but oftentimes difficult to actually achieve. You can’t just fake it. People are surprisingly adept at deciphering your feigned interest. To truly convey presence, you must actually be present. It takes a significant amount of willpower to focus all your attention on the person you’re with at the moment. But like all things, with practice, it becomes significantly easier.

Below are some tips on developing your charismatic presence:

Bring yourself to the here and now. Presence begins in your mind. If you feel like your mind is off somewhere else while engaging with someone, try this little exercise to bring you back to the here and now. Focus on physical sensations in your body that you often ignore. It could be your breath or it could be the sensation of your feet touching the ground. You don’t have to spend very long meditating on these sensations. Just a second or two will bring you back into the moment you’re sharing with this person.

Make sure you’re physically comfortable. It’s hard to be fully present with someone when all you’re thinking about is how uncomfortably tight your pants are or how hot it is. To that end, do what you can to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible. As Antonio has emphasized numerous times — wear properly fitting clothes! Besides helping you look better, clothes that fit well make you feel better. Other things you can do to increase your physical comfort include getting enough sleep, laying off the caffeine (be calm instead of jittery), and adjusting the thermostat (when you can) to a more agreeable temperature.

Set your devices on silent and put them out of sight. This serves two purposes. First, it reduces the temptation for you to check them while you’re engaging with someone. Second, it sends a strong message to the person you’re with that they have your complete attention and they’re not sharing it with the smartphone placed on the table.

Look the person in the eye when they’re talking. Numerous studies have shown that people who make higher levels of eye contact with others are perceived as possessing a load of desirable traits, including warmth, honesty, sincerity, competency, confidence, and emotional stability. And not only does increased eye contact make you seem more appealing in pretty much every way to those you interact with, it also improves the quality of that interaction. Eye contact imparts a sense of intimacy to your exchanges, and leaves the receiver of your gaze feeling more positive about your interaction and also more connected to you.

It’s important to note that while eye contact works well in building intimacy in friendly situations, recent research suggests it may backfire when you’re trying to persuade someone who’s skeptical of your point of view.

To learn more about the importance of eye contact, click here. To learn how to make eye contact the right way, click here.

Nod to show that you’re listening. Besides eye contact, an easy way to convey presence is through body language, and more specifically, nodding your head. But be judicious with the noggin nods. An over abundance can indicate you’re trying too hard to please and agree with the person, which decreases their perception of your power. Also, only nod at appropriate times; you’ll need to be truly listening to know when a nod makes sense.

Ask clarifying questions. An easy way to show someone that you’re completely there with them is to ask clarifying questions after he or she has spoken. For example, you could ask, “When you say ________, what exactly do you mean?”

Another great clarifying question comes to us from Dr. Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Basically, you paraphrase what the person just said and add, “Am I understanding you correctly?”

In more casual conversations, ask people questions like, “What was your favorite part of that?” or “What was the hardest part of that for you?” People really enjoy reflecting on and answering such questions.

For more info on how to ask questions that show you’re really listening, click here.

Avoid fidgeting. Fidgeting signals to the other person that you’re not comfortable or content and that there’s somewhere else you’d rather be. So don’t twiddle your thumbs or your phone. And avoid looking around for what else is going on, which signals to the other person that you’re searching for a better opportunity than your current one.

Don’t think about how you’re going to respond while the person is still talking. We all have a tendency to do this. Our inner conversational narcissist wants to be ready to jump in and start talking as soon as there’s an opening. But if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, you’re obviously not fully listening to what the other person is saying. It’s natural to want to have an idea of what you’re going to say before you say it, but it’s okay to work through your response as you’re giving it; embrace the pause. As we’ll discuss in the article on Power, it’s low-status individuals that talk the most and feel the need to fill every silence.

Wait two seconds before responding. Breaking in the very instant a person pauses or stops talking signals to them that you were doing the above; thinking about what you were going to say instead of fully listening to them. Nonverbal behaviors are more powerful than verbal ones, so use this trick from Cabane to show you’re really tuned in:

When someone has spoken, see if you can let your facial expression react first, showing that you’re absorbing what they’ve just said and giving their brilliant statement the consideration it deserves. Only then, after about two seconds, do you answer.

The sequence goes like this:

  • They finish their sentence
  • Your face absorbs
  • Your face reacts
  • Then, and only then, you answer

Bone up on your other listening skills. Make sure to check out our post on active listening for more tips on improving this vital skill. Follow them and you’ll make vast improvements in your charismatic presence.


Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steve November 6, 2013 at 9:45 pm

As a cleric, I do a lot of listening. I endorse all of the techniques noted above; they work. I would just add that when you speak in response to question, it can be good to check how tuned in you are to the conversation by asking something like, “Was that helpful for you?” just to be sure you all remain on the same page.

2 Pablo November 6, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Great article, congrats, i wrote something about having carisma but this is so much more complete. I will recommend this to some of my clients.

3 Michael Romano November 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Great article. This is good advice for trial lawyers too. We frequently get so caught-up in the mechanics of direct or cross-examination that we’re often not fully listening to the answers witnesses are giving.

4 Hugh November 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm

One of the “listening” skills that I’ve found most powerful, is observing physical changes and sharing my observation with the speaker.

“Do you realize that you just got much more animated when you talked about your idea for a new project?”

People are usually impressed that you made such an observation, and you’ll only make an observation like that if you’re actually paying attention.

You can’t fake it.

One night, I was hanging out with my neighbor and his friends from law school, and one was from Ghana.

He alternatively told stories from law school and from Ghana: court rooms and jungles. I observed that his accent got more pronounced when he told his Ghana stories, and receded when he spoke about working in a NYC law firm. So, I mentioned it.

He responded about how he has two lives with two languages and two identities, etc.

The next day my neighbor’s wife said that their lawyer friend from Ghana had really liked me.

I don’t recall saying much else to him. But he knew I was listening to him and I was present, because I made an observation about him.

5 Emmanuel M'M November 6, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Spot on. I am a really social person but I have noticed that when I give quality over quantity, people remember me and I have fodder for our next interaction making it less difficult.

I am still learning how not to split my attention. Struggle though

6 Mark G November 7, 2013 at 4:16 am

I read this book when a teenager:

It contains some good advice, and exercises to build your charisma.

7 Andre Steam November 7, 2013 at 6:02 am

Great work, congrats!

8 Claude November 7, 2013 at 6:17 am

This fits in well with the work that I am currently doing with a coaching client whose mission it is to become a Happy Warrior, which is about finding the balance between Power and Warmth. Read the full HBR “Happy Warrior” article here:

9 Matt Peters November 7, 2013 at 7:14 am

Great article. I know I personally have been trying hard to give people my complete attention when meeting with them and not be distracted by alerts on my phone. Good stuff. I can’t wait for the next in this charisma series.

10 Reid November 7, 2013 at 8:01 am

Boy guys, you could not have hit this one on the head any more squarely. My father drove me completely insane as a child teaching me how to listen, and also as importantly how to respond. I remember this more than anything,

“There is only one thing people like more than the sound of their own voice, and that’s the sound of their own name.”

Make every effort to learn someones name right away, and use it, sparingly, but use it in conversation.

It’s the listeners who control the power of a conversation. You might also take a fast look at NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), as I have found some of it’s insights incredibly powerful. GOOD ARTICLE guys!

11 JJM November 7, 2013 at 8:45 am

Excellent article. Charisma has been fore most on my mind these days. Something I am actively working to cultivate.

12 DV November 7, 2013 at 9:45 am

Actually, in almost all of Japan, maintained eye contact is considered overly aggressive.

13 Kevin November 7, 2013 at 10:41 am

Good article, especially about how pervasive and anti-charismatic being on your phone all the time is. I instantly dislike people who can’t take their noses out of their phones.

14 Nick November 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

Brett & Kate,

These are some great tips. I especially appreciate you pointing out that charisma (and presence) are not necessarily something you are born with – they are traits to be cultivated. Every man needs to learn this.

15 H November 7, 2013 at 11:25 am

This is all fine & dandy and definitely has a place, but I’m constantly ignoring and replacing people who have this stuff down but don’t have any understanding or competency on the real issues. There’s just too many people who show up on time and act & talk correct but don’t have a clue. If I find a person who is completely a Sheldon-Cooper-like-dead-head, breaks everyone of these rules, and shows up an hour late to everything, but truly understands the real issues and gives me real solutions, then I’ll go to them every single time!

16 MCM November 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm

At one point in time, this was simply called being polite. It’s unfortunate that we now have to “learn” how to listen. Kudos to you AoM for this article (and several others) attempting to bring back the fine art of personal interaction.

17 Mark November 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm

What about eye contact while speaking? I sometimes have trouble speaking on my feet (figuratively, and literally sometimes) and I’ve noticed that my eyes tend to wander while speaking in order for me to gather my thoughts and maintain my train of thought. Any tips?

18 Heywood November 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm

@MCM, were aren’t born polite either. It’s a learned skill.

19 Andrew November 7, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Y’all have some great timing on this article. Just today I read another article on how people hate waiting for anything. Waiting makes people uncomfortable, because they feel they should be busy. By maintaining a sense of presence not just in conversation, but in the world around you, there is a sense of calm. It’s almost a like a small vacation in an otherwise busy day.

20 Tukaram November 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm

While I do agree with all of this – I really just can’t do the eye contact. Somewhere along the road I picked up that eye contact is rude and intrusive. As an American I don’t why I feel that way but it is a natural trait for me.

21 Colin J November 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Great timing, I’ve been concentrating on giving others the feeling that I’m present and that they’re important. I’m self-absorbed by nature and have had the habit of breaking eye contact. I took a cue from a previous article about commanding power in a room and focused on what my body shows when I talk to someone. I lean in a little and don’t look away from a speaker during meetings when everyone else is slouching or shuffling paperwork. I try to maintain a sincere smile and ask more questions about my customers. And man it actually makes ME feel better, not to mention the reputation ill be building if I keep it up. Over time just concentrating on my body will make others know I care.

22 Deegs November 8, 2013 at 11:46 am

I always wondered what to do if the other person is the one who is not truly present. What is a nice way to let them know that their actions may be seen as rude or off putting?

23 Emily November 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Sorry to intrude on your conversation, boys, but I really enjoyed this article and believe cultivating ‘presence’ is important for women as well! Thanks for the practical tips, Mark and Kate.

@Mark – As a communications geek, I might be able to give you some answers to your eye contact question. Looking up is a normal memory-jogging action as we gather our thoughts; so, it is normal in the flow of conversation for the speaker to give less eye contact than the listener. We also look away while we speak, because taking in all of the nonverbal information from the other person’s facial expressions can be distracting. (Interestingly, introverts are more likely to look away while speaking in order to gather their thoughts.)That said, it is normal to have less eye contact while formulating your thoughts, but you can train yourself to be intentional about reestablishing eye contact every few seconds or after you have decided what you will say. This allows you to be more present with the other person, and it reminds you to check his or her nonverbal cues (giving a confused expression, looking at the time), so you know whether what you are saying makes sense to them, is drawing them into the conversation, etc. Hope that helps!

24 MCM November 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm

@Heywood. True. Perhaps I should have clarified by saying it used to be learned through observation, like walking and talking and not through a step by step instructional.
Not knocking the article, just making a observation as to where we currently are as a society.

25 Patriot1 November 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Yeah, the Serpent had charisma too, like a lot of our modern day politicians. Like Adam and Eve, people are suckers and fall for charm and charisma time and time again. Look where it’s gotten us. Beware of the snake in the grass.

26 grumpycrow November 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm

“He’s incredibly intelligent and a pretty quiet guy by nature; however, he counterbalances his introverted inclinations with intense focus and presence.”

Actually intense focus is somewhat the norm for introverts. They also can and often do have a great deal of presence, at least in close quarters. Extroverts tend to work the room, are louder and more noticeable, but that is not the same as presence. ‘Being present,’ is not the same as everyone knowing you are present, the presence described above is more like what would be referred to in certain spiritual practices and I think it is very natural for introverts. It is one of the reasons they prefer one on one engagements. In fact, it may be what makes it so difficult for them to deal with larger social circles. They are present and therefore vulnerable to the energy of the space and the people in it while extroverts often feed on that energy.

27 Patrick November 9, 2013 at 7:22 pm

I’ve been fiddling a lot lately. Thanks for this article, I have a lot of reading to do! I’ll try applying these concepts at the cafeteria with my friends, I just need to know that I might not get results or be considered a charismatic person just because I started listening to people, that would be false hopes.

28 JNA November 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

“As we’ll discuss in the article on Power, it’s low-status individuals that talk the most and feel the need to fill every silence.”

I’m really interested in learning more about this. I’ve often been praised for my ability to work rooms, put people at ease, etc. but I generally do talk a lot. I’m still really early in my career and definitely want to nip this in the bud if it’s sending the wrong signals.

It would be awesome if anyone had some other sources/advice on this topic.

29 Daublin November 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Tukaram, it’s worth working on the eye contact thing.

I used to feel the same way as you describe, that it would be rude and invasive to look the other person in the eye, that it would make them nervous.

In retrospect, I was projecting my own feelings onto them. It was *me* that was nervous about being looked at, and I figured everyone else must feel the same way.

In retrospect, not looking people in the eye is not polite, it looks timid and skittish.

Anyway, you can learn to do it. You don’t want to stare them down aggressively, but looking at the person like you are interested in them? If you are doing it right they will love it.

30 porkchop November 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

Presence is a rare quality in where more credence is given to style than to substance. Many people do not seem to understand the importance of actually ‘being’ in the time/space that one occupies. Incapable of successfully negotiating the present they try to live in the future; they anticipate situations and create relevance. Thus, negating the value of their current company, they add little value to the goings on currently going on.
Presence enables (forces?) a person to savor moments and breathe deeply the very stuff of life. After establishing ‘here-ness’ meaning and benefit naturally follow.

31 James November 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm

One thing that I have observed is the immense power of presence that a toddler has. A toddler will do all these presence tricks and more. I would pit an average toddler against any man in the contest of the power of presence, and the toddler will most likely decimate the man. This is not a slight against men, but that we should learn from them in commanding a room. They command a room sympathetically: they do not dominate everyone, but everyone WANTS to give their undivided attention to the active toddler. It is amazing to watch from that perspective. Try it some time.

32 Matthew November 18, 2013 at 10:01 am

Great article! My only critique is concerning mobile devices. When I’m talking with someone in person, both during work hours and in my own leisure time, I like to keep my phone’s ringer on. I do this because I’ve found that if the other person hears my phone ring or notify me of a text message, when I clearly don’t respond to the phone ringing (or obviously silence the ring), it is obvious that I am present and give more importance to the present conversation. In addition, if I am in a purposeful conversation, such as during coffee or a very intentional conversation, I like to place my phone on the table, visible to the other person as a signal that I have removed the phone from my person and am giving full attention to the conversation.

33 Dave November 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm

All of these tips are good. Except, you shouldn’t have to try to do most of them. It should come naturally. I say, if you want acceptance in life, or friends, or what have you, you should try only at being yourself at all times, in all situations, no matter what. Don’t let anyone influence you too much, don’t be too interested, don’t give in too easily, and don’t rush. That’s about it.

34 Jeff November 23, 2013 at 9:26 am

Very interesting article, and very appropriate in my line of work as a therapist. There is something I noticed, however, particularly when it comes to direct eye contact that I’ve brought up with some of my professors and it might be applicable here. As a man, direct eye contact can be a double edge sword, depending on the cultural dynamics and situation you are in. Some men (as indicated by prior comments) were taught that eye contact is an aggressive state which ought to be met with defensive posturing, partiuclarly from other guys. As a result, being charismatic in these circumstances can be difficult, as one tries to convey that they are carefully listening and being immersed and present in the conversation, without essentially picking a fight. I think the best way I’ve found so far to do this is to try to remain as natural as possible. Guys are taught also that it’s ok to look away once every few seconds to avoid blatantly staring someone down. I think that’s still acceptable to indicate presence, so long as attention remains on the interaction, and not on your friend’s new status update.

35 Kim November 26, 2013 at 3:00 pm

This 3 part Charisma series is fantastic totally forwarding this to my friends.

Keep up the good work! & TY!

36 Alric February 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm

I have a tip if people have a hard time looking into the eyes because I had a very hard time looking into their eyes. I started looking just off the center of their nose between the eyes. It really does work and no one notices even if you tell them this is what you are doing. It is a cheat but does work! I have been told that I have very good eye contact.

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