I knew I shouldn’t have done it. The minute I walk through the sliding doors of the Baltimore airport I hand over my suitcase to a well-dressed gentleman in a button-down shirt and grey slacks, who says in his beautiful South African accent, “Looking for a cab?”
Next thing I know I’m gliding in a black town car toward Baltimore where I am to speak about strategic storytelling and best public speaking tips at a leadership conference.
Yep. I fall for the the oldest trick in the book, getting in an overpriced “taxi” before I can utter the words, “no thank you.” This is going to cost me (or rather the organization who hired me). Sorry!
South African political radio loudly plays in the background. My driver has a big belly laugh along with a deep resonant voice that exudes enthusiasm and confidence with everything he says.
“Can you believe it?” he asks. “It’s the same all over the world. Corrupt politicians trying to pull the wool over our eyes [Big belly laugh].” But I am not buying it. They cannot fool me [Big belly laugh].”
Next he is pontificating on American politics, although he finds it all rather amusing, while he switches the station to NPR. I like him. He has charisma.
I don’t give my driver much thought after that until I start writing this article as a follow up to the last question I get at the conference from a man named Sterling.
Sterling sits in the outer most seat in the last row on my left side. He raises his hand and says in all earnestness: “Jenny, how do you get more charisma? Are you born with it or what?”
During those three hours, I have gone over best public speaking strategies and storytelling tips for how to be a persuasive and memorable speaker. But Sterling’s question reminds me that I never actually use the word “charisma.”
The definition of charisma is having a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. “Compelling attractiveness.” “Inspire devotion in others.”
Those are powerful phrases. And, sure, we all want some of that. Someone with energy and enthusiasm. Poised. Polished.
But back to Sterling’s question: Are you born with charisma or can you develop it? And how important is charisma to get people to pay attention to what you have to say and to be persuaded by your words.
Let me tell you a little story.
Chip Heath teaches one of the most popular classes at the graduate school of business at Stanford. The class explores why some ideas stick and others don’t. By “stick,” Chip and his brother Dan, who together co-wrote a book called Made to Stick, mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have lasting impact—ideas that can change your audience’s opinions or behavior.
That’s an important concept to understand if you’re a leader like Sterling, or for anyone who’s trying to get people to believe, buy, donate, join, or volunteer. In short, if you want to influence people.
But back to Chip’s story. On the second session of his class, Chip does a little experiment, unbeknownst to his students.
The students are given some data on crime patterns in the U.S.
Half of them are told to prepare a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that non-violent crime is a serious problem in this country. The other half of the students are told to take the opposite point of view.
These are smart students and good communicators and pretty much everyone gives a good speech.
Then they divide into small groups and each give their one-minute speech. Each speaker is ranked by their peers in their small groups on how impressive is their delivery and how persuasive they are.
As you might expect, the most polished speakers get the highest rating—those who are poised, smooth, and, mm-hmm, CHARISMATIC.
The surprise comes next when the exercise appears to be over. Chip plays a ten-minute clip from Monty Python to kill a few minutes.
Then, suddenly, he stops and says, “Take out a piece of paper and write down for every speaker you’ve heard, every single idea that you remember.”
The students are shocked at how little they recall. They’ve heard, at most, 8 one-minute speeches. But they are lucky to recall even one or two ideas. Some draw a complete BLANK.
In the average one-minute speech, most students use about 2.5 statistics. Only 1 in 10 tells a story.
When students are asked to recall the speeches, over 60% of them remember the stories. Only .05% of them remember any individual statistics. In a class of 30, that’s just one and a half students.
The people who are captivating speakers (those with charisma) do no better than others in making their ideas stick.
So my answer to Sterling? Public speaking is less about charisma and more about knowing how to capture your audience’s attention and to influence them with ideas that stick. And what does that? Stories.
It would be more beneficial to focus on the art of storytelling in business to spread your important ideas and to get your core message across than to overemphasize charisma.
And consider this. Carmine Gallo, a communications instructor at Harvard University, points out in his analysis of 500 of the most popular TED Talks of all time that stories make up 65% of the average speaker’s talk. According to Gallo, wrapping your big idea in a good story is the winning formula for having a popular TED talk.
And it can be your winning strategy too when speaking in front of people. Stories are what will make you and your organization irresistible.
Although, I sure enjoyed my charismatic driver!