Olivia Fox Cabane: An interview by Bob Morris

An expert in the fields of charisma, trust, influence and persuasion, Olivia Fox Cabane gives people the skills and the self-confidence that lead to outstanding performance. From a base of thorough behavioral science, she extracts the most practical tools for business; giving her clients techniques she originally developed for Harvard and MIT. Olivia has lectured at Stanford, Yale, Harvard, MIT and the United Nations; she is a frequent keynote speaker and executive coach to the leadership of Fortune 500 companies. 

In addition to being a regular columnist for Forbes, she is often featured in media such as The New York Times, Bloomberg or BusinessWeek; and was recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal. A former Advisory Board Member of Columbia University’s AIESEC Council, Olivia has both French and American nationalities and is fluent in four languages. She is the youngest person ever to have been appointed Foreign Trade Advisor to the French Government.

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Morris: Before discussing The Charisma Myth, a few general questions. Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Cabane:  In my late teenage years I was such a socially inept and awkward introvert that I realized I really only had two choices: either exile myself to a desert island or figure out how to make this whole human thing work.  I chose the latter– but I’m still keeping the desert island option open… By my late teens I had become quite anxious about my ability to ever smoothly function in society, and was therefore extremely keen to study anything that might help me interact better with other people.

Morris: All organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. How best to develop that leadership?

Cabane: The one perspective that I can bring to the table is on how leaders can be charismatic; high charisma can certainly be useful in effective leadership.  There are costs to be borne depending on what sorts of charisma you want to wield.  Effective leaders need to understand what sort of charisma they’ve got, and the costs associated with that.  A good leader might want to enhance their natural form of charisma or develop alternative forms, appropriate to the costs that they think are acceptable.

Morris: Many peak performers in executive search claim that they can make an accurate, almost definitive evaluation of a candidate within the first 3-5 minutes of an interview. Is that possible? Please explain.

Cabane: Whether or not such an impression is accurate, the fact is that people do make snap judgments in about two seconds, regarding other people’s education, intelligence, trustworthiness, and even their level of social success.  This topic is explored in the book in some depth, including how you can take control of, and influence, such snap judgments

Morris: When asked why she wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, here is Susan Cain’s response: “For the same reason that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Introverts are to extroverts what women were to men at that time–second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to ‘pass’ as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and, ultimately, happiness.”

Do you agree? If so, how can introverts obtain “full citizenship”?

Cabane: One of the myths that get busted in the book is that introversion is a handicap for charisma.  In reality, introversion can be a major asset for certain forms of charisma, such as Focused Charisma.  Introverts feel no compulsion to be in the spotlight, which allows them to effectively implement many of the likability techniques described in the book.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Charisma Myth. When and why did you decide to write it?

Cabane: The honest answer is that the publisher came to me, because they’d heard about the lectures that I give and the consulting that I do in this area.  They were interested in charisma explained from the science perspective, and they understood that there simply aren’t many people who know the hard science behind it, and who can also make it fun, and engaging, and practical.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Cabane: There were quite a few!  Here are two of my favorites.  The first has to do with just how prevalent the impostor syndrome is, and just how high the levels of business are that it reaches.  The second is about how effective some real-life Jedi Mind Tricks are, in terms of achieving charismatic body language.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about charisma? What in fact is true?

Cabane: Long believed to be an innate, magical quality—the original Greek root χάρισμα refers to a gift of divine grace—charisma has in recent years come under the scrutiny of sociologists, psychologists, and cognitive, behavioral, and even neuroscientists who have found that, far from being an innate, magical quality, charisma is simply the result of learned behaviors. In fact, in controlled laboratory experiments, researchers were able to raise and lower people’s levels of charisma as if they were turning a dial just by asking them to adopt specific (charismatic) behaviors

One common charisma myth is that only extroverts are charismatic. In reality, research shows many charismatic introverts. In Western society, we place such emphasis on the skills and abilities of extroverts that introverts can end up feeling defective and uncool. But introversion can actually be an advantage for certain forms of charisma.

Another myth is that charisma requires attractiveness. Yes, good looks do confer some advantage; but they’re not a necessary condition. In fact, charisma itself makes people more attractive. When instructed to exhibit specific charismatic behaviors in controlled experiments, participants’ levels of attractiveness were rated significantly higher than before.

Morris: What is the single biggest inhibitor to charisma?

Cabane: Low self-confidence, also known as self-doubt. In one of its manifestations, known as the “impostor syndrome,” competent people feel they don’t really know what they’re doing, and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to expose them as a fraud. This is a fairly common phenomenon, with more than 70 percent of the population experiencing it at one time or another. Interestingly, impostor syndrome is worst among high performers. When I speak about it at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and MIT, I see the students breathe a sigh of relief as they realize this feeling has a name and they are not alone in experiencing it. Every year, the incoming class at Stanford Business School is asked: “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?”  Every year, two thirds of the class immediately raise their hand.  It hits at all levels of business; you would be surprised at how high it goes. Many of the CEOs I coach have told me that they’ve been in a lifelong battle with the impostor syndrome.

Morris: You assert that charisma ”has been turned into an applied science.” Please explain.

Cabane: Charisma has come under the scrutiny of sociologists, psychologists, and cognitive and behavioral scientists. It has been studied in multiple ways, from clinical laboratory experiments and cross- sectional and longitudinal survey research to qualitative interpretative analysis. The subjects of these studies have been presidents, military leaders, students of all ages, and business executives from low-level managers to CEOs.

Morris: You suggest that charisma consists of three core components: presence, power, and warmth. What are the defining characteristics of each?

Cabane: When people describe their experience of seeing a charismatic person in action, whether Bill Clinton or the Dalai Lama, they often mention the individual’s extraordinary “presence.” Presence turns out to be a core component of charisma, the foundation upon which all else is built.

Such charismatic presence is rare because it takes effort to sustain. Have you ever felt, in the middle of a conversation, as if only half of your mind were present? When you’re not fully present in an interaction, there’s a good chance that your eyes will glaze over or that your facial reactions will be a split-second delayed. Since people can read facial expressions in as little as seventeen milliseconds, the person you’re speaking to will likely notice even the tiniest delays in your reactions.

We may think that we can fake presence. But we’re wrong. When we’re not fully present in an interaction, people will see it. When you’re with a charismatic master—take Clinton, for example—you feel that he’s completely here with you, in this moment. Present.

Charisma does not depend on how much time you have but on how fully present you are in each interaction. But if presence is the foundation on which charisma rests, power and warmth are the stuff of which it is built.

When we first meet someone, we instinctively assess whether that person is a potential friend or foe and whether they have the power to enact those intentions.  To answer the first question, we try to assess how much he or she likes us. To answer the second question, we try to assess how much power he or she has. When you meet a charismatic person, you get the impression that they have a lot of power and they like you a lot. “Fight or flight?” is the power question. “Friend or foe?” is the warmth question.

Power is seen as the ability to affect the world around us, whether through influence over others, financial, intellectual, social or physical means. We look for clues of power in a person’s appearance and body language, and in the way others react to them.

Warmth, simply put, is goodwill toward others. Warmth tells us whether or not people would want to use whatever power they have in our favor. Warmth is evaluated more directly than power, almost entirely through the person’s body language and behavior.

Throughout our interactions, we instinctively look for clues with which to evaluate warmth or power, and then we adjust our assumptions accordingly. Expensive clothing leads us to assume wealth, friendly body language leads us to assume good intentions, a confident posture leads us to assume the person has something to be confident about. In essence, people will tend to accept whatever you project.

Morris: What are the primary charisma styles?

Cabane: The four primary kinds of charisma in business are: focus, visionary, kindness, and authority.

Focus charisma is primarily based on a perception of presence. It gives people the feeling that you are fully present with them, listening to them and absorbing what they say. Focus charisma makes people feel heard, listened to, and understood. Don’t underestimate this kind of charisma; it can be surprisingly powerful. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, is a perfect example.

Visionary charisma makes others feel inspired; it makes us believe. It can be remarkably effective even though it won’t necessarily make people like you. Steve Jobs was notoriously feared inside Apple and had many detractors both within and without, but even these detractors readily admitted to his being both visionary and charismatic.

Kindness charisma is primarily based on warmth. It connects with people’s hearts, and makes them feel welcomed, cherished, embraced, and, most of all, completely accepted. This is what the Dalai Lama is famous for.

Authority charisma is primarily based on a perception of power: the belief that this person has the power to affect our world. This form of charisma is possibly the most powerful one of all. Our instinctive deference to authority can take epic proportions, and, of course, can be equally turned toward good or evil. Colin Powell embodies authority charisma, but so did Stalin. The human reaction to authority runs deep; it’s hardwired into our brains.

Morris: Please evaluate the late Steve Jobs in terms of his charisma when making major presentations such as the introduction of an iProduct.

Cabane: When Steve Jobs first presents the Macintosh in 1984, his ownership of the stage is almost nonexistent: he spends most of his time hiding behind the lectern. Worse yet, in the one moment where he leaves the lectern to cross the stage, he actually goes into complete darkness, and the audience is left with nothing but an empty lectern to stare at. Although this is only a few seconds, it’s a few seconds too much.

At that point, his speech tempo is poor; there’s frequent “dead time” (unintended pauses) in his speech. He’s reading from his notes, and has zero engagement with the audience. His body language is low-confidence, displaying hunched shoulders; often looking down; frequently seems to be looking at his shoes. He seems bashful, awkward, shy. What gestures he does have are useless, wasting the audience’s attention.

By 1996, he’s walking around the stage rather than staying behind the podium, clearly more comfortable and confident. He’s speaking more fluidly, looking at the audience, taking questions and answering as he goes along. His body language is definitely more confident: he looks straight ahead, takes up more space. However, overall, he still seems nerdy and nervous. Seems awkward, stiff, like the Tin Man character in the Wizard of Oz movie.

One sign is the amount of useless gestures he still makes: using his hands to compensate for his uncertainty of being able to make his points with enough emphasis. This is also reflected in his language, with ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’ punctuating his sentences, and using far too many words; and highly technical language— the presentation would be incomprehensible to non-experts.

The Steve Jobs of 2000, announcing his return as CEO of Apple and introducing the Apple G4 at the MacWorld convention is a different animal altogether. His ownership of the stage has skyrocketed— he’s a showman now. He owns the stage.

His body language is much more fluid, and overall, highly confident—he looks down at his shoes only once, seemingly from emotion. His eye contact is now outstanding. Hand gestures are few, and are now used as emphasis rather than substitution.

His verbal language is much more concise. The “one more thing” is now an inside joke; some people think it’s his creation. In fact, he got that from old TV show Columbo. The great charismatic masters aren’t afraid to copy, imitate, and outright steal

His speech is carefully orchestrated, he uses theatrical techniques throughout his presentation. In fact, he’s using the same techniques as professional magicians to direct the audience attention. For instance, five minutes into the G4  presentation, the image is striking: just like a magician in a black cape, with a black hat, pulling out a white rabbit, here’s Steve in his black top, against a black background, with a black pouch, pulling out a white G4 cube.

Theatrics and magicians’ tricks will become a hallmark of his; you can see them again in his 2005 presentation introducing the iPod Nano: revealing the small white Nano that had been hidden in his pocket throughout the presentation, to the oohs and aahs of the audience. Just like in movies, he is now using close-ups to direct audience’s attention to where he wants it to go. By then, he’s finally getting comfortable with silence— and few umms and ahs punctuate the pauses between his sentences.

You can see him pulling magicians’ tricks again in 2007. That’s now his hallmark. He knows he’s in the entertainment business; his presentations are 100% entertainment. His personal brand is now clear in his clothing; and he never varies. People now expect it and love it.

His body language is now so understated, casual, comfortable. In some cases, seems debonair, almost cavalier. Now he has not only confidence, but comfort. He could be speaking from his living room. It’s an intimate dialogue with the audience (see fireside chats)

His confidence shows not just in his body language, but in his deliberate, dramatic use of silence: he’s comfortable making the audience wait for his next words. In fact, he plays with the audience; he teases the audience. Uses both joking at the expense of competitors, and, joking at the expense of the audience.

Simultaneously with increasing teasing and humor, he’s increased in warmth. Which indeed, makes sense. You have to increase warmth so the teasing doesn’t alienate them. And because he’s increased the power /confidence, he needs the warmth to compensate / balance.

It comes across in his voice—far more fluctuation, a warmer tone—and his words: “we made a beautiful thing for your hand.” Instead of just ‘we made a beautiful thing,” he’s saying he made this beautiful thing for you. His language is now far from technical; his words are rich and caressing: “beautiful,” “gorgeous” or “love”—he never would’ve used them in 1984.

By 2011, he’s moved beyond. He expresses humanity and vulnerability. He expresses awe and wonder, not just pride. He makes fun of himself, and of Apple. He actually talks about his products’ defects (and jokes about them). Never would’ve done that before. But he’s lost energy. He’s relying more on the data; less on his own presence and ‘wow’ effect. Even brings other people up on stage. One could say he’s past his peak, as far as pure stage charisma goes.

Morris: Someone has read (and then, preferably re-read) your book with great care, highlighting key passages, and is determined to increase her or his personal magnetism. Where to begin?

Cabane: The fastest ways to increase charisma: get alpha gorilla body language.

First, Take a deep breath. You can’t be imposing without oxygen.

One of the first things I question my clients when we work on projecting charismatic body language is: “What’s your breathing like right now?” Anytime your breathing is shallow, you activate the stress response. It’s hard to feel calm, relaxed, and confident when you’re not getting enough oxygen and your body thinks it’s in fight- or-flight mode. Make sure you can breathe, so avoid constrictive clothing. Taking even just one deep, slow, full breath can instantly lower your stress level, increase your feeling of confidence well-being, and even boost your immune system. So give it a try: inhale slowly for five counts, hold for two, and exhale for five again.

Second, stand up and shake up your body. You could jiggle your arms and legs, maybe even bounce up and down. Now take a wide stance and plant your feet firmly on the ground. A wide, stable stance helps you both feel and project more confidence. And this, ladies, requires shoes that are stable. Your brain’s first job is to monitor your safety, whether it’s your ability to escape predators or your ability to stay upright. If it has to spend any of its attention worrying about your breathing or your balance, that means that at least one part of your attention can’t be devoted to your speaking success. Why waste any of your focus?

Now imagine being a big gorilla: inflate as if you were trying to double in size. Assuming a strong, confident physical posture will make you feel more confident and more powerful. People who assume expansive poses experience a measurable physiological shift. In one experiment, assertiveness- and energy- promoting hormones rose by 19 percent, while anxiety hormones fell by 25 percent.

As confidence increases, your body language adapts accordingly. This gives you yet another biochemical boost, and the cycle builds upon itself. Keep practicing, and confident body language will become second nature.

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Olivia cordially invites you to check out the resources at her website:

To download the first chapters of The Charisma Myth, please click here.


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  1. kare anderson on April 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    A provocative book Split-Second Persuasion by Kevin Dutton, covers many research-based ways that humans (and animals) can change people’s minds almost instantly when they exhibit many of the qualities cited by Olivia, especially those who would fall into the category of psychopaths

    • bobmorris on April 22, 2012 at 8:09 pm

      Thank you, Kare, for the head’s up. I’ll definitely check it out. Meanwhile, best wishes and warmest regards, Bob

  2. Mada on February 24, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Great article! You should check out the The Art of Charm Podcast, episode where Judah Pollack was invited together with Olivia Fox Cabane, to speak about their new book: The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking. It is AWESOME!

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