All other things being equal, when two or more people are competing for a job, promotion, customer, vote, sale or any number of similar goals, it's personality -- not necessarily talent, experience or objective qualification -- that's likely to give someone the edge. Call it charisma, magnetism, charm, dynamism or character, it's that certain spark that makes others more responsive to the one who possesses it.
Of course, not everyone has it, though plenty of people think such traits can be learned. Scholarly articles and entire books have been written on the subject. We've all heard stories about people coming out of their shells -- the shy country kid becoming a Hollywood star, or the unlikely "nobody" rising to great political success (though it's important to note here that this isn't always a good thing: some of history's greatest evil was done by some of its most charismatic figures).
Certainly, introverts can become a little more outgoing, stuffed
shirts can lighten up a little and the insecure can become more confident. But
much as I come down on the similar debate about creativity, I don't completely
agree that these dynamic interpersonal traits can be taught or learned.
I believe that much of what constitutes a personality is hard-wired, or at least very firmly wired, and that innate personality has a lot to say about the degree of X-factor to which someone can aspire. You can improve your basketball skills with enough practice, but you can't learn to be tall.
The good news is there are things that just about anyone can do to learn, and best make use of, some of the outward characteristics to which others respond best:
Focus on the things you don't say: From a solid handshake, to eye contact, to the ever-important smile, nonverbal cues are a very big deal, and these are among the most learnable interpersonal behaviors. Almost anyone can learn to sit up straight, focus on the person speaking, walk with authority. More than 15 million people worldwide have watched Amy Cuddy's authoritative TED Talk on body language -- making it the fifth most popular of all time among the conference's 1,600-plus talks. Just a small indication that the power of unspoken signals is massive and universal.
Look for happiness triggers: This one is a little harder,
because in my opinion, empathy is one of those qualities that is more difficult
to learn (if it were easy, things like excellent customer service would be the
norm). But just a little bit goes a long way -- even if you can't fully put
yourself in another's shoes, you can probably guess at some of the things that
are likely to make that person happy. One of the nearly universal traits of charismatic, positively influential people is the ability to make other people feel good. Find ways to do that, and you're likely to feel good about the results.
Learn a little about a lot of things: Whether it's having a grasp of history and world events, knowing about food and wine, or being conversant in a variety of sports or other interests, being ready and able to discuss things that interest others is a tremendous quality. I'm not talking about being a superficial social chameleon, I'm talking about being well-rounded. Unfortunately, it seems to me this is a dying art, an unemphasized priority.
When I started traveling internationally many years ago, I made it a point to learn to be able to say, at a minimum, "hello," "goodbye," "please" and "thank you" in the language of any country I visited. Knowing four or five words in a dozen tongues doesn't make me a multilingual savant, and I don't do it to impress people at parties. I do it because it shows my hosts that I've made at least a little effort to learn and respect their countries and cultures. Americans can, unfortunately, be arrogant travelers, and these small gestures of respect have made an immeasurable difference in the business and personal relationships I've built around the world.
Accept that people do judge a book by its cover: Depending on what you do or what you want, fair or not, looks matter. If you're in the surfing business, obviously a jacket and tie have no place in your wardrobe. But if you're trying to get a job at a bank, even in this ultra-casual day and age, a pair of decent, polished shoes won't go unnoticed. People with magnetic personalities often set the shiniest example of the aesthetic of their chosen environment: shallow as it may seem, the most charismatic person in a room usually stands out without saying anything.
If you're already on top of the world and have nothing more to prove or gain -- think Steve Jobs, unshaven, black shirt and jeans with no belt -- you can pretty much do what you want. But for most of the rest of us, if we want to be taken seriously, we should look the part, whatever that part may be.
Of course, the value of a strong, influential personality varies by person, profession and environment. In some situations it's unnecessary, even undesirable. But more often than not, at least having the ability to project a strong, appealing presence is a quality that will benefit you at some point. A standout personality -- the good kind -- can give a person powers small (changing an unchangeable airline reservation), medium (changing a company) or extra-large (changing the world).