Doctor NerdLove examines the alluring “it factor” some people have, and offers ways we can enhance our own charisma.
I was in Los Angeles last week while I was on vacation – a mix of professional development, visiting friends, chilling out (literally!) on the beach at Malibu and indulging my lifelong love of the Disney theme parks. I spent a great deal of time with my friend Bert, a working actor, a born showman and the only human I know who can put away three entrees, two appetizers and a dessert in one sitting and still be in amazing shape. Naturally, while you’re in the heart of Hollywood at the beginning of awards season it’s only natural to find the conversation moving towards the weird nature of celebrity in the 21st century. At a time when someone can become one of the world’s biggest music acts by uploading a video to YouTube, it’s interesting to observe just why some people become big names and others – who may outclass everybody with their talent – fall by the wayside.
“It’s like the story of how Keanu Reeves got cast in Dangerous Liasons1 ,” Bert told me. “He goes in and gives his audition, and he’s Keanu Reeves, he’s got his surfer boy accent and his reading’s flat. And he says ‘I could do that better.’ So they give him another chance, and it’s just as bad. So he doesn’t get the role. But nobody else really fits. So as they’re making the next round of casting, the casting director put the picture of Keanu up and said ‘Hey, how about him?’ And everybody said ‘Are you crazy, he was awful! No.’ But then they said ‘Ok, fine, bring him in again.’ And once again, he’s just awful. So they send him away. And they still haven’t cast the part. So the casting director pulls out the 8×10 of Keanu and said ‘So why don’t we bring this guy back in again?’ And then everybody says ‘You’ve lost your goddamn monkey mind! He’s the worst actor we’ve seen yet! But fine, whatever, let’s bring him back again.’ And Keanu comes and auditions one more time and he’s not any better than he was before. And the casting director looks at the producers and says ‘What do you think?’ And they say ‘What do we think? We think he’s godawful. He’s wrong for the part and we don’t think he can handle the material.’ ”
“‘Yes,’ said the casting director. ‘But you were willing to see him four times.”
“Keanu got the part.”
Keanu, y’see, may not be the greatest actor in the world, but he had “It”. He has that mysterious X-factor that makes people like him. It’s that je ne se quois – the mysterious factor that makes one person stand out and seem more attractive or even desirable that nobody can really put their finger on.
This, naturally, lead to a discussion over which actors had talent and which had “It” and which had both.
The amazing thing about “It” though, is that it’s really not that mysterious. In fact, you can learn to have that “It” factor that people love.
It’s “It”. (What Is “It”?)
I’m sure that you all know someone with “it” – someone who’s personal charisma and appeal make him stand out like a bonfire at midnight. There’s just something about them that’s absolutely magnetic. They draw the attention (and desire) of people around them, seemingly without conscious effort. For me it was my buddy Miles – a man whose ability to attract women would not be out of place in an Axe commercial.
Growing up, while he was around, the rest the guys in my social circle growing up may as well have been invisible. It didn’t hurt that Miles was genuinely one of the nicest guys (but not a Nice Guy TM) you would ever meet. I loved Miles like a brother, but I was convinced that at some point I was going to throw acid in his face, just so I’d have a chance.
But even that might not have helped. Miles, y’see, had “it”.
“It” is the factor that transcends a person’s looks and makes them even more attractive and desirable than someone who is just conventionally attractive. In fact, the “ugly man who’s amazingly successful with women” is an incredibly well known trope… because they have “it”.
“It” is the reason why George Clooney is considered one of the sexiest people alive and Brad Pitt – while a very pretty man – isn’t.
People with “it” may be good looking, yet “it” isn’t about looks. People with “it” may be famous or wealthy or powerful… but that’s not what “it” is.
We’ve all known people who don’t photograph well… yet when you see them in person, you can’t take your eyes off of them. This is because “it” isn’t always apparent on the surface.
Y’see, “it” isn’t just one thing. It’s a combination of personality traits, behaviors and attitudes that combine in such a way as to create an emotional whole that radiates charisma and desirability. And once you know what goes into “it”, you can learn to develop “it” for yourself.
People who have “it” have a singular ability: they make you feel as though you are the most important person in the world. Tom Cruise, for example, is famous for his ability to talk to anyone about just about anything and make you believe he’s absolutely fascinated by what you have to say. Not just that he’s being polite and counting down the minutes until the social contract says that he’s allowed to leave, but enthusiastically participating in the conversation – asking questions, repeating what you’ve said just to be sure he’s understanding it.
In short: he’s making a point of actively listening. Too often we don’t give our full attention to the people we talk to. We live in a world of distractions, whether it’s the TV on in the background, the conversations going on around us or even just being half-lost in our own heads. Many of us aren’t listening so much as waiting for our turn to talk, and when we do, we’re looking for how we can turn the conversation to our favorite subject… namely ourselves.
People with “it” aren’t flicking their attention around the room. They’re not checking their iPhones. They’re not letting themselves be preoccupied or inattentive. They are letting you know that they find you enthralling.
It’s more than just asking questions and not checking your email every few seconds though. It’s about the details. People with “it” make a point of not just learning your name but remembering it. They’ll make sure to use it in conversation.
They ask questions – probing questions, not just surface queries designed to keep the conversation moving along. They’ll rephrase things you say just so that they can feel sure that they understand – even bring it back up later. You walk away from talking with someone with “it” feeling as though you’ve just had the most intense experience in your life because they made it all about you.
And we like people who show interest in us.
Another aspect of people who have “it”: they know how to make contact.
Take Bill Clinton, for example. It doesn’t matter if you love him or hate him, anyone who has ever met him will tell you the same thing: the man radiates charisma. When you’re in the room with him, it’s almost impossible not to like him.
If you watch videos of Clinton in action2 you will notice his almost trademark “double-handshake”; he grips the outstretched hand with his right and covers them both with his left and gives an enthusiastic shake. It’s a power move to be sure… but it’s one that not only makes you feel as though he’s incredibly pleased to meet you but it feels almost like you’re much closer emotionally than you’d thought. It’s that bit of physical contact – something innocent like a pat on the bicep or a palm on the forearm – that builds an emotional connection and brings a feeling of intimacy that you just don’t find when everybody is keeping well within their own personal bubbles.
People with “it” are also masters of eye contact. You may hear about their “intense” gaze or their sexy eyes. This is because they understand the value of strong eye contact. Eye contact is more than just a way of keeping your eyes from checking out a woman’s cleavage, it’s also a way of communicating non-verbally. By making eye contact with the person they’re talking to, they’re heightening that connection, saying “I am giving you my full attention.”
It’s worth noting that it’s very easy to cross the line from “intimate” to “creepy”. The key is in moderation. People who have that “it” factor, who have that charisma, don’t become Uncle Touchy, nor do they stare like a snake at a particularly tasty hamster. They understand the value of strategic physical contact – a hand on the arm as you shake hands, or touching the forearm for emphasis, offering a high-five for emotional emphasis – and the need to deliberately break eye contact before the other person gets nervous.
Pro tip: eye contact can be incredibly intense. Holding eye contact for just a second longer than is normally comfortable is a way of building sexual chemistry – the physical effects that come from holding eye contact that long mimic those from sexual arousal – and often get interpreted that way.
The smile is utterly important when it comes to personal charisma.
Too many people – nerds especially – buy into the idea of the Byronic hero: tall, dark, and broody. They lack intensity or depth and so they try to substitute seriousness instead. But while they think they’re being Jack Reacher, they’re coming across as Johnny O’Sullen, always looking as though they’re upset or having a bad time.
And nobody wants to hang around someone who isn’t having a good time.
A genuine smile, on the other hand, makes people warm up to you. It makes people feel comfortable, even happy, because you’re comfortable and relaxed.
George Clooney – a man who has “it” – is known for his million dollar smile. It’s practically his trademark. It’s warm and inviting and makes you want to like him… because he always looks like someone who’s having the time of his life.
Look at that picture (above); this is what’s known as a Duchenne smile. His eyes are crinkled and his face is creased. This is a smile that reaches his eyes – a sign of a genuine smile. People can spot a fake smile at a literal glance and they will find it unsettling.
Need to produce a genuine smile at a moment’s notice? Mentally run through your favorite comedian’s routines. Personally, I’ve gotten years of milage out of Patton Oswalt’s story of “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People3 ”
People with “it” aren’t wishy-washy. They don’t vacillate. They don’t hesitate, stammer, dither or otherwise indicate that they’re unready or unsure of themselves. They have the conviction of their beliefs and don’t apologize for them… they just aren’t jerks about it. They’re honest about who they are, what they are and what they like, but they know how to communicate that passion in an interesting and charming way. It gives them a sort of quiet strength – an aspect that is incredibly appealing.
This is not, however, to say that you’re supposed to be solemn or overly serious. In fact, many people can have that intensity and yet still be funny, even goofy. John Barrowman is downright silly at times and it’s that sense of mischief that makes him all the more appealing. And yet for all of the times me may joke around, you can still feel that confidence and self-assurance in his words and actions.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Body Language
Part of that “it” factor is body language. Very small, simple changes in the way we sit, stand and move can make the difference between someone with “it” and “everybody else”.
To start with: slow your roll. If you want to project the quiet confidence that comes with the “it” factor, you want to slow your movements down. Someone with “it” is relaxed and calm; they’re not twitchy or shifty or burning with nervous energy. They move deliberately and with purpose. If you’re projecting stress and nervousness with your body language, you’re going to make the people you’re talking to feel nervous and tense… feelings that they will then associate with you. If you radiate calm and ease, they will likewise begin to feel calm and at ease.
Similarly, you want to stand up straight. Chin up, shoulders back and your spine straight with your arms dangling loosely at your sides. People with “it” take up space; even if they’re only 5’6″, they still give the illusion of being bigger than they are because of the way they stand. When you’re slouched over and folded in on yourself, you not only make yourself look smaller, you project that you’re beaten down and trying to withdraw into yourself – not behavior that people find appealing.
People with “it” also have more ”open” body language; they don’t adopt subconsciously defensive actions by putting barriers between themselves and the people they’re talking to. A common issue is holding one’s drink like a shield: arm cocked at 90 degrees, forearm angled across the torso. A variation is to stand with one’s arms crossed; It’s a subtle way of closing yourself off from other people. You want to be open and accommodating to people, giving them an opportunity to approach you rather than feeling as though you’re trying to shield yourself from them or wall yourself away.
Bring The Positive Energy
Some people are psychic vampires. When you talk to them, you feel drained emotionally; you walk away feeling exhausted, as though you had been standing with every muscle tensed at the same time. When you’re talking with someone who has “it”, you feel energized. You come away feeling like you’re buzzing, positively electric… because people who have the “it” factor bring positive energy with them. They make people around them feel good because they don’t focus on the negative. They don’t constantly pick at faults or point out flaws, they don’t complain, bitch and moan… they spread praise and look at the bright side, even if they have to search really fucking hard for it. They’re in touch with their emotions; they don’t surpress their feelings, but at the same time they don’t spray them all over the place. They don’t control how they feel, they just control how they express it.
They have warm personalities – you come away feeling as though they honestly enjoy spending time with other people… and it’s important because it’s often reciprocal. When you make someone feel good, they in turn feel good about you.
It’s that feeling of positivity and connection that can make all the difference between a pretty face and someone who’s just magnetic.
Someone who has… “it”.
- The story is rather apocryphal. Also by this point I’d had several whiskeys [↩]
- No, not like that… freak. [↩]
- Real movie, by the way! [↩]