We have all met people possessed of a natural charm that enables them to hold the attention of groups of people, who listen to their opinions, laugh at their jokes and possibly want to share bodily fluids with them.
Charisma is like a magical chemical product flowing in certain peoples’ bloodstream. If you start out in life with nothing but charisma, you will usually make it because you can make people believe in you. Charismatic people are never short of people to help them in their ventures, or to vouch for them if they get in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wealth, looks or talent but how they can make people feel.
In theory I’m a believer in collective organising, but I’ve noticed that successful projects are usually spearheaded by a motivator who has a vision. People will always be happy to fall in line if there is an inspiring figure who knows where they are going. The most successful generals are those that somehow manage to make their troops love them. The danger is that their position can become like that of a cult leader, with their power unlimited.
I remember a TV documentary a few years ago which told the story of a pub barman who convinced several customers he was a spy on top-secret government business. He held them under his spell for years, involving them in bizarre fabricated missions and swindling them out of thousands of pounds for ‘essential’ expenses before eventually being brought to justice.
I’ve never come across anyone like that, but certain people I know have led me to believe that we should be wary of people with an excess of charm. They have often read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People and consider themselves experts at psychological manouvering.
Psychological strategies can be leaned, but I’d argue true charisma is inborn and largely unconscious. Charismatic people seem to have an amplified personality ”turned up to 11” that they couldn’t turn down if they tried.
I can think of a couple of people I know who are not close friends, but when I bump into them and have a brief chat, I always walk away feeling exhilarated, inspired and perhaps just a little jealous of their self-possession. Charismatic people can help us to believe in ourselves.
Then there are others with a quiet charisma, who attract attention by not trying to. They are in their own space and hold a mysterious aura around them. I can imagine the impression conjured by the young Bob Dylan when he was playing in coffee houses in New York City in 1961. Here was a guy who was hard to pin down; odd-looking and enigmatic, there was clearly ‘something’ about him. And fifty-odd years later, people are still trying to figure out what it is.
Throughout the entertainment world, charisma is a highly-prized and relatively rare commodity. I go to a lot of gigs but only occasionally do I see someone with a magnetic presence that holds the attention. When you see it you can never explain it, it’s just ‘it’. There are all kinds of tips and tricks of stagecraft that can be learned from teachers or picked up by experience; but star quality is inborn.
A few years ago, after being a drummer and a guitarist in several bands, I decided to try being a vocalist in a band, just holding the mic at the front of the stage. I wanted to see what it was like being the focus of everyone’s attention.
We were a ragged punk rock outfit, stylistically not far from The Stooges and at the time I was in awe of Iggy Pop, who is surely one of the most unpredictable and riveting live performers ever. My first gig as a frontman was in a small bar in front of perhaps 70 people. I threw myself into it, prowling the stage, climbing on the amps, wrapping myself up in cables.
“He’s a live wire!” I imagined people thinking “…What will he do next?!”
I thought I was doing great, then I looked at the audience’s faces. Not one of them was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were either on the guitarist’s hands, or the bassist’s flailing hair, or the drummer – anywhere but on the person actually singing the songs – me!
I was internally furious. What was wrong with them? Couldn’t they see how hard I was working? Weren’t they moved by my unpredictable passion? I felt like ranting, but I just continued the gig, now intimidated by the whole situation and feeling like a fraud. I laugh about it now, but I learned a tough lesson. You can’t decide to be charismatic. You either have it or you don’t.
shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to watch someone who most definately ‘has it’ . I was working at the 02 Arena in Liverpool and got the chance to see a few big mainstream acts. Def Leppard, Meatloaf and Michael Buble were all entertaining enough, but Diana Ross had something else. Standing onstage in a red satin ballgown, her charisma completely filled the huge venue. Even inbetween songs, her speaking voice and regal presence cast some kind of shimmering spell over the place.
I’m sure one day some brain scientist or communication theorist will come up with a theory that will explain charisma, but until then all we can say is that some people have a kind of magic!