Build Up Your Charisma to Make a Good First Impression

By Christina Folz Jun 23, 2014

ORLANDO, FLA.--Olivia Fox Cabane enthralled the audience during her June 23 Masters Series session at the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition, which is perhaps not surprising for someone whose expertise is in magnetism and persuasion. Her core message was a welcome one: that charisma, the compelling quality that we associate with people who make strong first impressions, is something that can be learned and harnessed by HR. 

“The first myth around charisma is that it is an innate magical quality—that you either have it or you don’t,” she said. While charisma is not the first skill one might think about as important in a day-to-day business context, it can have a huge impact: “Charisma can make people want to do whatever you want them to do,” said Cabane, the author of The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism (Portfolio Trade, 2013). “Like it or not, it can make the world go round.”

Cabane herself is a case in point. The speaker and executive coach has become so highly sought-after in her teaching position at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business that the school has had to monitor students entering her classroom to ensure they are actually registered to be there. 

The three basic ways that people can become more charismatic are by cultivating presence, power and warmth.


“When you ask people their experience of meeting someone charismatic, they’ll often tell you about their presence,” said Cabane. She defines presence as the ability to stay aware of what is happening moment by moment.

When people are not present, their facial expressions are split-second delayed, and they come across as inauthentic. “Human beings can detect facial expressions as fast as 17 milliseconds,” she said.

To become more present in conversations, she suggests:

  • Focusing your attention away from distracting thoughts and onto a physical part of your body, such as your toes.
  • Looking deeply at the color patterns inside the other person’s eyes. “This will give you the kind of deep soul-searching eye contact that Bill Clinton was famous for,” Cabane said.


“Body language is the biggest component of power,” she said. For example, imagine a gorilla in the jungle who is beating its chest because its territory has just been breached. What it’s doing, she explained, is making itself look bigger. “It turns out that alpha humans do exactly the same thing.”

She asked the audience to stand and showed them how people can assume the body language of leadership, which includes standing up straight with your feet slightly apart and shoulders back. Just making these simple adjustments can lead to a 19 percent increase in assertiveness-related hormones and a 25 percent decrease in anxiety-producing hormones, Cabane said.

One of the reasons people display weak body language such as slouching is fear. Up to 80 percent of the population has experienced something called the “imposter syndrome,” which is the internal inadequacy people feel despite external evidence of their accomplishments. 

“For those of you who counsel leaders, [let them know that] it’s the leader’s responsibility to destigmatize the imposter syndrome.” 


Warmth often comes across in the voice and eyes. However, it can be tricky to convey to a person one genuinely dislikes. Fortunately, Cabane said, the subconscious mind does not draw a distinction between imagination and reality. 

Thus, visualization can be a great way to get your body to obey your mind. She challenged the audience: “Close your eyes and pretend the person next to you is someone you love dearly.” “Now open them and notice the expression on the other person’s face.” 

Calling herself “ruthlessly outcomes-oriented,” she believes that the ends usually justify the means when it comes to generating charisma. “I don’t care what you have to imagine to make the people in the meeting [you’re in] fascinating, do it.”

Christina Folz is editor of HR Magazine. 


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