Charisma

by Nikki Owen

External differences

Professor of Psychology, Albert Mehrabian, conducted a series of studies in 1971 on the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal communication. His conclusions centred on two main theories. Firstly, there are three elements to face-to-face communication: words, tone of voice and body language. Secondly, the non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitudes. Consequently, it makes sense to examine the non-verbal elements or behaviours exhibited by a wide-range of charismatic people to identify different external characteristics.

Interestingly, when this is applied to the aforementioned charismatic icons, there are only a few external characteristics common to all, yet each individual exhibits (or exhibited) extremely high levels of charisma.

External Factors King Elvis Thatcher Ali
Eye contact **   *** ***
Animated facial expression * ** *** ***
Use of strong hand gestures * ** *** ***
Natural smile         *
Varied voice tone and pace *** * ** **
Fast talking pace *   * ***
Commanding voice tonality **   *** **
Use of pauses ** * * ***
Centred body posture *** ** *** ***
Clear diction *** * *** *
Actively listens ** * ** *
Large vocabulary *** * *** **
Adaptable ** * ** **
High physical energy *** *** *** ***
Appears enthusiastic *** *** *** ***
Open body language ** * *** ***
Resonant voice *** ** *** **
Appears confident *** *** *** ***
Expert on their subject *** *** *** ***
Uses stories and metaphors *** * ** ***
Shows conviction *** *** *** ***

These external measurement criteria or behaviours have proved a challenge to those seeking a process with which to replicate charisma. For example, Margaret Thatcher used eye contact as a decisive, authoritative tool, while many of Elvis Presley’s most memorable performances were sung with his eyes closed. Martin Luther King spoke of peace with inflamed passion, yet Muhammad Ali, who made his name in an aggressive sport, spoke with wit, humour and a gentleness that appeared incongruent at times. Thatcher and Ali both raved about their successes, always playing to the crowd, while King’s oratories appeared ignited with religious fervour. Presley, however, often appeared humble and awkward during interviews, stumbling over words and addressing reporters as ‘sir’ and thanking them for their compliments.

Therefore, the idea that any individual can become charismatic simply by replicating specific behaviours is frustrated by the lack of a pattern.