Can charisma be learned? (Yes.)

One of the recent lectures I put together for the BigCo Studio class at Cornell Tech was about pitching an idea and winning support for it inside the specific context of big companies. Anyone who wants to see Airbnb’s original pitch deck can find it easily on the Internet but the heroics of Sally — the Director of Division X inside of Acme Corporation — pitching and winning organizational support for a new initiative are lost to the annals of that company’s water-cooler history, never to be heard from outside the walls of the BigCo. In our class, we are trying to surface what we’ve learned about success in BigCos since those BigCo experiences are not shared in the same way as the legends of the startup world.

One of the hardest parts about teaching if you’ve been doing the actual work for a while is clearly articulating concepts and approaches that may have become intuitive for you from experience but are entirely new to those whom you are teaching. In this spirit, one of my early drafts of my lecture about pitching an idea and winning support for it had a slide with this simple phrase: Being charming helps. I believe this to be true but I was having a hard time articulating it in an actionable way, which is the essence of teaching. Without being actionable, that phrase is just a useless aphorism. I didn’t want to take it out, though, since I think it’s so important. This quandary forced me to think harder and dig deeper on the topic: can you learn to be charming? I found some research in an HBR piece, “Learning Charisma.”

In this piece, the authors identify a dozen “CLTs” (charismatic leadership tactics), nine of which are verbal and three of which are non-verbal. The verbal CLTs are:  1) metaphors, similes, and analogies, 2) stories and anecdotes, 3) contrasts, 4) rhetorical questions, 5) 3-part lists, 6) expressions of moral conviction, 7) reflections of the group’s sentiments, 8) setting of high goals, and 9) conveying confidence that high goals can be achieved. The  non-verbal ones are 1) animated voice, 2) facial expressions, and 3) gestures. You should read the article to see more context on the list.

What does using these CLTs do? In short, their research shows that training people to be charismatic via use of them delivers results. Here’s the data:

  • When a group of midlevel European executives doubled their use of CLTs in presentations, observers’ numerical ratings of their competence as leaders jump by about 60% on average.
  • About 65% of people who have been trained in the CLTs receive above-average ratings as leaders, in contrast with only 35% of those who have not been trained

This was a little surprising to me and I’ll admit that I had a visceral negative reaction to the list as I thought about leaders being trained to do things like display “expressions of moral conviction.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the list is pretty useful and rings true. The researchers don’t say that one should be delivering fake “expressions of moral conviction.” Viewed in a positive light, the list of CLTs is simply a structured way to encourage leaders to connect with and articulate their true sense of purpose, tell stories that people can understand, relate to how people are feeling, articulate high goals, and inspire teams to meet those goals.

So, if you thought charisma couldn’t be taught (as I did), think again. Sometimes when you have the opportunity to teach, you end up learning something yourself.

p.s. John Kotter at HBS has done a lot of interesting work on gaining buy-in for ideas inside BigCos, so I talked a lot about his work in my lecture, including his awesome book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down which he talks about in this interview. Key quote:

Whether it’s a little deal with half a dozen players or a big decision at a company with hundreds or thousands of people, you’re in the murky land of human nature and group dynamics. And look at the curriculum in business schools — compare the amount of time that’s spent coming up with the idea that solves the problem with the amount of time spent thinking about how we can take this idea and communicate it, get enough people to understand it, support it, and then go on and make it happen. . . I think the ratio in most MBA programs is easily 80/20.

He’s right based on my experience inside companies. Our class is multidisciplinary and includes MBAs. In my lecture, I followed Kotter’s lead and flipped the ratio to 80/20 in favor of talking about human nature and human dynamics. Kotter’s book includes a list of four specific strategies people use to shoot ideas down in complex organizations along with twenty-four specific and commonly-used questions / comments / arguments used in those situations. It’s an excellent list and worthy of carrying on a laminated card in one’s wallet or purse. Two examples from the twenty-four are “Tried that before — didn’t work” and “You have a chicken and egg problem” but my absolute favorite (and one I’ve heard many times) is “What about THIS?” — “THIS” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment].”