The Body Language of Charisma

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

Let's face it, in business dealings, charisma counts. A lot. And charisma is as much about impressions and body language as it is about issues and substance. I've seen many qualified people get passed over for promotion (or lose a sale or fail an interview) simply because they couldn’t project an engaging attitude.

Max Weber, the father of sociology, first coined the term “charisma” to describe inspirational leaders. Originally from the Greek kharisma, meaning favor or divine gift, charisma has also been defined as “part confidence, part presence, and part sex appeal.” But however we define it, we know it when we see it. We call someone charismatic when he or she somehow compels us to embrace his or her vision—whether it's corporate, social, or political.

As a leadership communication coach, I further define charisma as complete congruence between what you say and how you look and sound when you say it.

Body language communicates your emotions and motivations, likes and dislikes, interest and disengagement. Whether you are interviewing for a job, pitching your idea to a venture capitalist, or presenting a new business strategy to the board of directors, you are most charismatic and convincing when what you are feeling internally is perfectly aligned with what you’re verbally expressing. (At which point your body language automatically becomes congruent with your words.) That’s why my coaching sessions always begin with questions about emotional intent: What is the heart of the message you want to communicate? How do you truly feel about it? How important is this to you? Why do you think others should care?

Charismatic leaders utilize a wide range of nonverbal warmth and likeability cues. They display genuine smiles, maintain positive eye contact, use a variety of gestures, orient their torsos toward those with whom they are engaging, touch others during conversations, and so forth. Anyone can be coached to include more of these positive signals (and to reduce unwanted, negative signals) in their interactions.

But here’s something else I discovered about charisma: sometimes all you have to do to be truly impressive is to get out of your own way.

I once worked with the head of a research department who was preparing for a major business presentation. One-on-one, this man was charming, smart, and had a great sense of humor. In informal settings, his body language was congruent and expressive. But he was also an introvert. Put him on stage in front of an audience and he became a nonverbal disaster.

You may be in a similar situation. Does this sound like you? When talking with friends, you use your hands and face to help describe an event or object. You smile, frown, shrug your shoulders, and make broad illustrative gestures. Yet during important business presentations, you become anxious or self-conscious. And, as a result, your usually eloquent body language suffers.

If so, you may not need to work on nonverbal techniques. Like my client, you might be better off learning to relax and to focus more on your audience than on yourself, in order to let your natural, sparkling personality and body language “speak up.”

You already know that the way you feel affects your body language. (If you are depressed, you tend to round your shoulders, slump, and look down. If you are upbeat, you tend to smile and hold your head up high). But did you know that the reverse is also true? The way you hold and carry yourself, your gestures, your movements and even your facial expressions affect your emotions by sending messages back to your brain.

In several experiments, individuals were asked to smile and were then shown pictures of various events. The smiling participants reported that the pictures pleased them and even made them feel elated. When asked to frown during the same kind of experiment, subjects reported feelings of annoyance and anger. Additional studies demonstrated that a smile is not only a consequence of feeling happy or content, but also that putting on a smile can induce physiological changes in body temperature, heart rate, and skin resistance. In other words, smiling can actually make you feel happier.

So the next time you want to be seen as your most charismatic self, try these simple, but powerful tips: Begin to align your verbal and nonverbal communication by focusing on the emotional intent of your message. Then stand up straight, pull your shoulders back and hold your head high. Just by assuming this physical position, you will start to feel surer of yourself. And if you add a smile you will affect your brain and attitude even more positively. During the entire interaction, keep sending nonverbal warmth and likeability cues.

We tend to follow charismatic leaders because they are perceived as confident and upbeat. If you learn to harness the power of the body/mind connection, you’ll be irresistible!

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: